The girl guides have changed the promise to be given as “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. As a humanist I welcome the later part, but many humanists and other commentators are questioning the first part as selfish modern gobbledegook, narcissistic and asking children to stand for ideas they have neither the skills to develop or understand.
Here follows my retort.
A literary expression of the idea
A reminder of the most famous expression of the idea is in Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee
Polonius is not exactly a character of outstanding virtue, yet Shakespeare uses him here as a do as I say not as I do. Polonius own narrow mind set would be true to your own self interests and then others may aid you in those interests. Hamlet by contrast is really trying to find his true self, reaching the limits of madness to find who he is that he might respond correctly to the machinations of the world. Even he finds that difficult despite personal revelations (quite rightly how do you know a ghost is real or what it claims to be?), and only finds final resolve with impending death to act.
Hamlet is probably a better text than Romeo and Juliet when it comes to the angst of adolescence. He may well be 17 as befitting a student when we first meet him (he could be much older) and that would certainly explain the latitude given to him for his youth, let alone being a prince. In the play we have a discussion of morality, the nature of truth, whether you should act as you think or how you are told.
Hamlet realises that to act correctly he needs to really understand not just the truth of his father’s death but the truth about who he is, the morality that should guide him, the consequences for how he acts. The play within the play is to smoke out Claudius; the introspection within the introspection of Hamlet is being true to himself and not others.
Only then can he act in the best interests of himself, and those he cares for. However, the tragedy for Hamlet is his hand is moved more by the machinations of the world in the end that he was trying so hard not to make him act, rather than his own conscience.
The Guides statement
Gill Slocombe, Chief Guide, said: ‘Girlguiding believes passionately that girls need a space to explore their values and build the confidence to be true to themselves. Guiding has always been somewhere that all girls can develop their beliefs and moral framework, both inside and outside the context of a formal religion.
‘However, we knew that some people found our Promise confusing on this point and that it discouraged some girls and volunteers from joining us. We hope that the new wording will help us reach out to girls and women who might not have considered guiding before – so that even more girls can benefit from everything guiding can offer. [Press Release]
The Values Context
Commentators like Zoe Williams miss the point when they question the phrase as babyish and without meaning.
For one thing the guides recognise that members are still a work in progress in developing beliefs and themselves, and what matters is a framework within which children can learn to develop in a safe environment. The breakthrough is a recognition that this can happen also outside of religion.
The expression is more than Zoe claims as simply “don’t be an arse”.
Camp Quest exists as somewhere children can go without being told to believe in God or a set of political ideals. It features how it tries to empower children to be true to themselves:
Camp Quest envisions a world in which children grow up exploring, thinking for themselves, connecting with their communities, and acting to make the most of life for themselves and others.
Values we teach: integrity, empathy, creativity, critical thinking, and community. [Camp Quest]
As Shakespeare showed in Hamlet, to be true to yourself is actually a demanding thing to place on yourself. In a modern context for young children we mean not having to accept the attitudes of your peers, not accept the views of bullies. The development of your own self of worth based on core values as mentioned above.
What is great to see is the guides are moving to that attitude as well. The promise update is not weakening these core values. It is about strengthening them. Have those nurtured in the young of today, from pre school age through to young adulthood, reinforced in the home, at school and outside activities. I do not believe in silver bullets, but this is something to be excited about!
I also find it troubling that commentators accept the right of parents, and themselves, to forbid their child to join the guides or scouts even if their child wished to. What moral reason can you give for a child not joining such an organisation accept that you are foisting your values about monarchy on a child? At least with the updated promise guides are dealing with God and “nationalism” objections.
A personal context
I have written about how I decided to become an apostate as a 14 year old having studied with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though it meant isolating myself from nearly everyone I had ever known. It meant that being taught at home so I was more prepared for the second coming had not been a good decision. There were no childhood friends to fall back on, and the few I had known would now shun me for falling away from the faith.
Yet reading the false prophecies of the past gave me a clear choice. I could decided that though mistaken it came from sincere concern to warn people to prepare for the second coming. It could also be that they were making it up as they went along, this was the word of man not God. I could shut my eyes and ask for faith – or I could see my faith was being misappropriated to save others proselytising for things that had been wrongly claimed to be forthcoming in the past.
During these times I remembered the scripture let God be found true though every man be found a lier. Searching myself, having been taught to think critically about all other faiths, I used my faculties to think critically of my own. To be true to myself I had to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses and move on with starting a new life.
To me being true to yourself has powerful meaning, and a deep responsibility. It is a moral responsibility to develop your thinking, and to check your actions. There is never an end to the process, but by all that is worthwhile there is never a better time to start than now. The expression is not empty words but one from Shakespeare to the present day has meaning for children, immature grown ups and all of us.
I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” – Abraham Lincoln
Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself. Being true to anyone else or anything else is not only impossible, but the mark of a fake messiah.” – Richard Bach
Words have meaning, and those paid to use them should know that.
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog