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. 😉