Authentics Anonymous

I’ve been pondering the topic of authenticity for a while now. The more I think about it, the more convinced I’ve become that “authentic”* has come to mean something that, if lived out, might very well produce inauthentic living in some.

What our society says, and what I feel like I see and hear from so many places, is that being authentic means being fully yourself, not being afraid to go against a stereotype, and discounting others’ opinions when making important decisions. This seems like a great way to live, at least on first glance. Living this version of authenticity means that I trust myself and God-in-me to figure out what I want to do and how I want to live. It seems like it would produce people who truly care about what they’re doing, and who do their best to live as closely to God’s design for them as possible.

The problems start when I hit an area where I don’t know what I want. We all have them. In our world of many choices, how could we not? It seems impossible to have a sense of identity in every area, or even in most of them. And this is where the questions start. Do I have to know whether or not I like running in order to be authentic there? If I don’t know, is it more authentic for me to pretend one way or another, or to say, “I don’t know?”

My gut reaction is to say that it’s more authentic to admit that I don’t know or, to complicate matters more, that while there are days when I like running, there are also days when I hate it, and days when I feel pretty much neutral towards it. And yet, those statements seem to go against our cultural ideas of authenticity. They make me sound muddled and tepid, not strong and vibrant and alive. Any uncertainty or ambiguity is not allowed. It’s not authentic to not know, or to sometimes feel one way and other times feel another.

I know that there are times when I give into the temptation to try to be something I’m not so that I know how I stand on an issue. I don’t really like running, but I like the idea of being a runner so I keep trying. That’s just true. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t come out of the dryer all nice and crisp, but there it is. If I say that I like running, it’s because I want to like it and because I feel pressure to either like it or hate it and not waver around somewhere in the middle.

And then there are further complications. What if someone actually fits a stereotype and doesn’t mind? What if that person is truly satisfied being average? What if God calls someone to live a life that looks a lot like the lives of others around then? Are they inauthentic because they’re not breaking down stereotypes or because they’re satisfied to live like a lot of other people do?

Again, my gut reaction is, “No!” If a person examines herself and that’s what’s truly in her heart, then she’s authentic if she lives out that life, even if her best friend is called to a life that looks very similar. This isn’t something that I actually struggle with a lot, because the life I want doesn’t look like very many that I see. My not struggling with it, however, does not mean that it isn’t a valid question.

The final problem that I want to point out is that, sometimes, it seems both wise and authentic to trust someone else’s opinion. If I’m buy a car anytime soon, it would be really good for me to look to someone else because I don’t know very much about cars. If I invite Dave to come with me, and listen to what he has to say, then I’m being true to myself on two levels (by admitting that I don’t know which car to buy and by admitting that having the help of someone more knowledgeable is the only way I’ll buy one wisely).

I guess what I’m getting at here is that true authenticity seems to be something different than our culture says it is. Instead of emphasizing difference, individuality, and independence, it should emphasize, quite simply, truth.

As I think about it, authenticity simply means telling the truth. It means the horrorifying, soaring willingness to show the world whatever is true about yourself in the moment. Sometimes, rather ironically, it means hiding, not showing your whole soul, because you feel like that’s appropriate or because you don’t feel safe. Other times, it means admitting that you feel seemingly contrary feelings about something. Even other times, it means admitting that you’re satisfied with the status quo, that you’re fine with normalcy, or that you’re happy with your life the way it is.

Beyond all of this, it seems like being authentic means that we tolerate the disparity of truth about ourselves. There are often so many things that are true about each of us at any given time, and trying to narrow that down and focus on one or two things results in a complete denial of the rest. Instead, it seems better to admit that there’s a lot there, that we need to sort through it all, and that the sorting may take an unspecified amount of time.

I’m struck by how much incorrect ideas about authenticity can hurt people. I think particularly of grief, where we feel so many different things at once. How much would it hurt to feel like that meant failure, or to shut down on that when we feel the mess must indicate inauthenticity? And there’s so much pressure to be authentic. What about the pressures of daily life? If I want to build skyscrapers but I must live and support my family in the middle of Nebraska, what pain will I feel when I’m forced to do something else and thus fail at authenticity?

I feel like this is all still pretty jumbled. I’d hoped that writing it out would help me figure it out, and it has, at least to a point. But the ideas still feel big and gangly in my mind that I can’t quite wrap myself around it. So this post will be a work-in-progress, maybe to be clarified later as God and insight leads.

Please don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t pursue the things that God has put in their hearts. I’m not saying that we’re all the same, or championing over-dependence. What I am saying is that those things don’t an authentic person make. I’m saying that all a person has to be to be authentic is to be honest, and that we put so much pressure on people to fit into a certain definition of “authentic”* that we hurt them and try to make them bend into postions that don’t work for them. And don’t get me started on our cultural desire for people to be both authentic and productive in certain ways. AARGH!!!

*For those who care, please note the correct utilization of quotation marks. πŸ˜‰

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Authentics Anonymous

  1. I think sometimes demanding that you either like something or hate something is a bad demand. Or bad categorization. Perhaps (per your example) “running” is too big a category. Maybe you like being outside and being fit but dislike the burn in your lungs particular to running. But the outside, the fitness and the burn are all in the “running” category. So you just need to break the category down.

    Then there’s the bad demand. That you have to either like or hate it, rather than “like part of it” or (more importantly, I think) “like it better than x”. As in, “I like running better than biking, and those are my two choices for exercise right now, so I’m going to run, even though it’s not particularly enjoyable to me.”

    Right now, my authentic self says, “There are many, many things I like, but I get to do very, very few of them, because necessity and duty dictate that I spend most of my waking hours caring for my children.”

    What overmasters us, indeed. On my best days these days, my free will and my necessity are running in tandem, and I’m hoping that when necessity slackens, that my will keeps me going on this straight line of duty and delight. (Not of changing diapers, but of loving others.)

    Or maybe it’s not so important to be authentic as it is to be obedient. Because then you will actually be who you were made to be.

    (Not preaching at you, just thinking/typing out loud.)

    Thanks for sharing your ponderings, Sarah; they’ve got me thinking. πŸ™‚

  2. HA! I do care about quotation marks and appreciate the proper usage.
    Of course, I care a lot more about what you’ve said here, and it has started me thinking on some deep level that won’t let me articulate it yet…but it feels very affirming in the directions that I have been growing, with the bit about truth being central to it all.
    So, thanks. Love to you, my friend.

  3. hi girl,

    you have some amazing thoughts here. so many that i don’t even know where to start. geesh.

    maybe the most authentic statement sometimes is “i don’t know” or “i just don’t care” instead of succumbing to the pressure there is to know & to care.

    i found myself trusting the opinions of three other people (i actually just wrote “three other peoples”, which tells you the state my brain is in) this last week & i am so glad that i did. i think it’ll take some time to fully work itself out of me but i found that instead of trusting my own impressions of me, i found three wonderful mirrors around me showing me what they saw. it was amazing & it scares me.

    wow, change of topic there. :o)

    anyway, thanks for your thoughts beautiful girl. and you are beautiful, you know? you can trust that.

  4. Dude. I found myself marveling as I read this post. The editor/writing instructor in me was marveling at such great usage of punctuation, syntax, and prose (yeah, I’m whack like that — getting excited about perfect command of the English language), and the truth-seeker in me was marveling at the concepts you presented and the richness with which you presented them. I found myself thinking, “This piece here? It belongs in Conversations journal.”

    I’m with you on authenticity being more about truth, not definitive categorization. (Or, at least, that’s what I understood the alternative to be that you were arguing against in this post.) I’m not sure I’ve run up against the societal view you’re debating here, but I can imagine it being out there. For the record, whenever I talk about authenticity, I’m talking about the kind you embrace here — the kind that says, “You know, I just don’t know right now.” To me, authenticity is about being in touch with what’s true in us, even if what’s true is that we haven’t grasped the truth yet.

    I don’t know if this helps the conversation or not, but at one point as I was reading, I found myself thinking about a conversation I have with my friend Sara pretty often. We call it the “want to want” experience. Like, I might say, “I want to eat better,” only to realize that the more true statement would be, “I want to want to eat better . . . because right now? I just want to keep eating any darn old thing I please.”

    I’m not exactly sure how that fits into the discussion, but it seemed to fit somewhere when I was reading along. : )

    PS: I stared at your asterisked explanation there at the end for a few minutes and just kept thinking it was meant for people in your life who are uber-particular about quotation marks, like maybe a group of friends from ISF who have an inside joke with you about quotation mark usage. When it finally hit me that I am one of the persons to whom you are referring, and because of a particular incident on a bridge at the Bellingham waterway, I burst out laughing so loud that Kirk, in the other room, wondered what had happened. Heh. Niiiice.

  5. obedience equals authenticity. I love that statement from Jessica, and she is right on. If we truly believe that we are imago dei, and we truly believe that God has a foreknowledge of our life and crafts all our days, then being obedient to him is the authentic path. The psalmist reminds us that God knows us and he numbers our days.

    I appreciate your working out these thoughts so much. I have been blessed to stumble across some very contemplative people in the blogsphere such as you, Christiane and Kirsten and it does my soul much good. I try to write as clearly, but usually it is just jumbled thoughts.

    Peace be with you my friend,

    Carl

  6. Jess–wow…I think you make some good distinctions here…they’re part of what I felt like I couldn’t say, there at the end. It’s like, there’s so many ways that the idea is wrong, I can’t even count them all πŸ˜‰

    I think that obedience and authenticity are tied quite closely together, at least in some ways. God created us to do certain things, and so doing those things or being those ways is authentic. It’s also obedience, because we’re acting on the things that he put in us to act on and, thus, are becoming more and more the person he created us to be.

    I can totally see that there are times when it feels like the two are very separate, but I’m not sure they really are. I think that sometimes God put it in us to be and do things we don’t necessarily like, but it’s still both authentic and obedient to do those things. I’m not so sure about this…it’s more of a first reaction than anything else, but it makes sense to me right now.

    I didn’t feel preached at πŸ˜‰

    Stephanie–so good! I’m so excited for you, for where you’re going and growing. And for the quotation marks, of course. Check out my flickr for the pic of the bridge that may be “icy.”

    Kirsten–I’m proud to be a peoples πŸ˜‰ And, you know, that’s another thing. We don’t always see ourselves clearly. Sometimes we CAN’T be authentic, because who we think we are isn’t who we really are.

    I totally hear you about saying, “I don’t know,” or, “I don’t care.” It’s so hard for me, at least, to do that. Like this upcoming election? Don’t really know, don’t really care, but I feel like saying that makes me lesser, weaker, and smaller. Yet it’s still true.

    I don’t feel very beautiful this morning, so your words are much needed. Thank you.

    Christianne–Thank you for your words about my words…I need that this morning.

    And I never thought you meant “authenticity” in any other way. I think I’ve stumbled across several blogs or articles lately that defined it the way I presented the cultural view above. Or, even worse, that said they defined it like you and I do and then proceeded to functionally define it differently. Gotta love it.

    I like your “want to want” distinction. Because so often, that’s how it really is. I wanted to want to keep working out last night, but what I really wanted was to fall on the couch. There are so many little things there that can go on–the want to want to, the want two things but wanting one more, the wanting one thing and only having one way to go about it at the moment, the wanting two things but only having one option at the moment, etc. No wonder our hearts can be confusing places!!

    Carl–I think your discussion of the imago dei, authenticity, and obedience is what I was trying to say in my response to Jessica above, but yours makes more sense πŸ˜‰

    I’m so glad to have you, here in this space.

  7. Joelle

    Thank you. I needed someone to clarify a bit of my thinking on those lines for me.

  8. My absolute favorite line here…

    being authentic means that we tolerate the disparity of truth about ourselves.

    Oh yeah. I’ve got a bit of disparity. : )

  9. Joelle–you know, I heard a song on Pandora this AM called “Joelle” and thought of you. I’m glad to be of help.

    LL–Totally. And your comment totally made me laugh.

  10. betsy

    Sarah,
    sorry it took me so long this week to get around to reading your post. I’ve had it starred for a couple of days now.

    Perhaps what you are describing here is living a life of wisdom?
    To actually live the practical life of a sage?

    It is wise to be truthful. It is wise to be receptor-aware in conversation (“no pearls before swine”). It is wise to be contemplative and to meta-observe one’s heart. It is wise to live humbly. It is wise to live in the present and trust God.

    love you,
    Betsy

  11. This is a very wise post, my friend. I’ve felt this myself. It seems like culture is saying, hey, you’re authentic if you act in this certain way (or wear these clothes or buy this product).
    And there is something to be said for holding back. I don’t need to express every opinion I have at every moment I have it (50 points for movie reference). There’s a graciousness in authenticity. Right now, I’m learning the art of knowing when to hold back and when to express my opinion or belief. Both take courage.
    I think the biggest thing culture misses is that authenticity is not just about individuality. It’s worked out in community. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any individuality in our actions, but it needs balance. And I think that’s what you’re picking up on.

  12. Betsy–has it been up that long? I guess I didn’t write it yesterday…it’s been that kind of week…

    You know, I feel like there are a lot of concepts swirling around this…authenticity…honesty…wisdom…grace…hope…obedience, and they all fit, in their own way. When I look at it like this, it’s no wonder I couldn’t get my head around it for a blog post.

    Practical sagery isn’t something I feel like I see a lot of. There’s the removed sage, and the practical…robot (?), but the idea of knowing how to live and then figuring out how that intersects with real life seems pretty foreign. Maybe culturally so?

    I feel like I’m rambling…but really, this all goes together somehow, I think. If anyone figures out how, will you let me know?

    By the way, “receptor-aware” is a great term…now I’m probably going to go around using it in everyday conversation πŸ˜‰

  13. Tammy

    Sarah
    I started reading this post earlier and i got really sucked into it and Nathan was over here and i was ignoring him for blogging so i closed up the laptop cause he was whining…shh don’t tell him i said that.

    I love this post, i love the way your mind processes and hashes things over and we get a glimpse of your inner thoughts.

    When you post these kinda meditation blogs i always leave with something impacting.

    You made a statement: “Sometimes, rather ironically, it means hiding, not showing your whole soul, because you feel like that’s appropriate or because you don’t feel safe.”

    I love that statement. It is so powerful, it gives me a bit of rest. Sometimes i feel so fake because there are things in my life that i don’t necessarily hide from people, but there are things i might lie about if certain people asked me.

    My theory with some people who are just nosy is to answer them like, “don’t ask me any questions so i don’t have to make Jesus mad cause i lied to you.” I will play the Adam card, “lord it is this woman that you gave me, she gave it to me or i wouldn’t have ate it.” If that doesn’t work i will play the Eve card, “the devil made me do it.”

    I am sorta rambling but my mad rambling has some order to it at least inside my mind. I make the mistake of thinking people can read my mind. It gets me into trouble and it leaves them just damn confused.

    So my point is this. This girl i worked with a couple of years ago asked me a very personal question. I was sorta shocked that someone i didn’t really consider a friend would ask me such personal questions about myself. So i flat out hands down LIED, and i would do it again. Is lying right? i don’t know? I thought to myself, “gossip Gertrude do you honestly think you would get a straight answer out of me? Assume what you will but i will not hand you the gun just so you can shoot me with it.”

    Sometimes people want to know you because they care and then there are those who just want to know you so they can tear you apart. I had to learn that the hard way too many times. I found out that in the attempt to be honest you can be a little too real for your own good.

    Thus, my latest blog is a little too honest, it is almost like letting someone rummage through my underwear drawer. I was in one of my moods.

    I used to label some people as fake, that was my ignorance talking. i think more than fake they are just scared, sometimes not even of people but the truth of themselves may be too much to carry sometimes. There is an inner circle of you guys that i am not afraid of. I am not afraid of you Sarah, as much as i am afraid of me.

    Love to you in your journey into the light…..or in my case the dark side.
    T

  14. Tammy, I’m so glad you’re not scared of me πŸ˜‰ You know, I think there’s a lot of reasons for being fake. Fear is definitely one, but so is just wanting to be something you’re not…and I think there are other reasons for wanting that besides fear. Though fear is so huge. I’m rambling…I’m really tired. The truth is that I’m thinking a lot about what you said and not spitting out a lot of good words πŸ˜‰ Love you.

  15. Tammy’s comment rocked. It covered a lot of terrain, but I’m pretty sure I tracked the whole way. I really appreciate the dialogue about the deeper reasons people might be fake. Sarah, I would be inclined to say that wanting to be something you’re not is motivated by fear. You’re making me think twice about that (or at least beyond that) by saying you think there could be reasons other than fear, too. Stimulating stuff, indeed. You girls are so dear to me.

  16. You know, the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe you and Tammy are right. But then I think about kids who become something else because they’re angry, at society, their parents, whoever. Are they really afraid? I don’t feel like I knew enough to be able to figure it out. I know that anger and fear are awfully connected for me, but I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, you know? And then I think of more situations like that…where I don’t know…and so I wonder…

    That was a lot of words to say, “You know, I’m just not sure…” πŸ˜‰

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