“What e’er thou art, act well thy part.” David O. McKay’s famous line motivated him during his mission and during his presidency. It’s not a bad philosophy, either. If I’m a Mormon, I should be a good one. However, for many of us, the question isn’t acting well a part. It’s discovering what we are to begin with.
Under the classic McKay formulation, I might say, I’m a Mormon, and so I should act well the part — I should go to church on Sunday, and magnify my calling, and avoid coffee, and so on. That’s acting well the part of a Mormon. Seems simple enough.
But what if what I “art” isn’t just, “a Mormon,” but is instead, “a Liberal Mormon.” In that case, perhaps I should wear blue shirts, dicth Sunday School sometimes, and read books by Mike Quinn. On the other hand, if what I art is “an Orthodox Mormon,” then maybe I should avoid birth control, read McConkie, and forward Clinton-bashing e-mails to my friends. Or would that make me a Conservative Mormon? Is that the same thing? How do I know what the categories are, anyway? And how do I decide which box I’m really supposed to put myself into? If category determines action, then the initial category decision becomes all-important. What if I misplace myself? The whole approach is reminiscent of a running gag in Galaxy Quest, when one character isn’t sure whether he’s supposed to be the cannon fodder, or the comic relief — his fate depends on which pre-determined category he’s supposed to fill.
At least for me, a different approach makes more sense: My actions define who I am. True, it can be helpful to know what some pre-set categories are, and what would make for good membership in some category. But ultimately, it is through my actions — how I do my part — that I discover or decide who I am. Thus, “what e’er thou art” isn’t a fixed, independent variable that determines the rest. Instead, it’s as changing and dependent as any other. To borrow from that overplayed Green Day song, I am still becoming who I am.
And I find out more about who I am by the parts that I choose to play, and by how well I ultimately play them, and how I feel after playing them.