“The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
I read Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Marcel, Unamuno, Heidegger and a bunch of other guys whilst searching for ‘meaning’ during and after my studies as a psychotherapist. And whilst they all helped the intellectual journey of finding words to grapple with the notion of what it is to be – to be alive, to be true to experience, to be aware, to resist the pull of the masses – I found that their means of conveying the idea of authenticity very often obfuscated the idea as a real world phenomenon under the sheer weight of their heavy, convoluted language, leaving ‘authenticity’ as lifeless and dead as roadkill.
By contrast, it was really my grandfather who gave me the best, easiest to remember education on how to be ‘real’ and who brought authenticity to life. And he did it mostly without seeming to try, or even opening his mouth.
So, this isn’t an academic appraisal of what existential philosophers thought about authenticity. There are plenty of text books and articles out there written by scholars who can do that for you. It’s my real life experience of what personal authenticity entails as I continue to discover it by trying to be it: that way of being that is about being true to who you actually are in any given moment. But what does that even mean?
What is Personal Authenticity?
Personal authenticity is an exercise in honesty, firstly with yourself. Some people would stop there and say that about sums it up. But I think that it also has to entail something about how honest you are in relation to others. I can be honest with myself as best I can. But if it stops there, then what’s the point of it? It’s a bit like having a beautiful motorcycle and never riding it, just keeping it hidden in the garage and polishing it every Sunday. Or like saying you have all these values – integrity, honour, courage – but never actually letting them off the leash and living them, particularly when circumstances put your claim to them to the test. We live in a world, not separate from it. And so whatever goes on inside, surely has a necessary impact on the outside. And so, in this sense, personal authenticity seems to be intimately connected with conduct and speech that is forged by personal integrity.
Authenticity in an Inauthentic World
And the outside – the world – is a very troubled and troubling place in which to dare be authentic: full of falseness and vanity, aggression and suffering, headline and social media savagery. If as I do, you follow several news sources from around the globe, you might conclude that it’s getting worse by the day, as we watch the steady decline of the world’s moral standards and community cohesion go to hell with more and more innocent lives being ruined by illegal wars, illegal invasions and occupations; more animal species are forced to extinction by the impact of corporate greed; more and more resources are squandered to meet the consumer appetites of westernised nations addicted to ‘growth’, prosperity and novelty purchases that promise to fill the existential hole that often exists in westerners; more billionaires are created as even more billions of people live in worsening poverty and hardship. Once clear moral values that served to bring us together and guide us in our behaviour with one another are now treated as if they are arbitrary: unclear, unfixed and reduced to the staus of mere fashion accessories that we can put on or take off as we please. Our so-called advanced civilisation is now muddied by moral relativism and an ‘anything goes’ attitude under the appearance of that much lauded term ‘freedom’.
[Video: how authenticity as a whistleblower is invariably attacked by institutions and authorities that are founded in inauthenticity]
And with the appearance of greater freedoms also comes greater restrictions on actual personal freedom, until we realise that we, in real terms, don’t enjoy greater freedoms at all. Instead, we have more breakfast cereal to choose from, and a more permissive society culturally, but what we understood to be freedoms are, in fact, only temporary permissions granted and withdrawn by the State according to agendas set by the ruling class. At the same time, the State surveillance apparatus grows and expands its reach into our lives with greater intrusiveness, deception and dishonesty each day, resulting in a pervasive sense of fear: fear of making a mistake, of breaking an unknown rule, saying the wrong thing, fear of ‘terrorists’, or fear of being mistaken for a terrorist, using the wrong phrase instead of the latest politically correct term, carrying too much liquid through airport security, or watching TV without a license if you are unfortunate enough to live under such a Dickensian regime.
No, real freedom is the inherent freedom of choice – not paper or plastic, coffee or tea, tory or labour, but the freedom we are always exercising each moment in the many choices we make every minute of every day, regardless of what our world looks like. It is this relationship to our personal freedom that begins to define our personal authenticity and whether or not we are acting in truthful relation to who we are and the choices we are making. In this sense we are also free to choose our path inspite of fear, rather than because of it, so that emotions don’t necessarily have to inhibit our connection to the truth of our values, for example.
Our Value: Obedience and Comformity
In an anxiety-provoking, rule-bound world that continually demands our obedience and conformity in order that we can more easily negotiate our ways through it and meet our needs with fewer hinderances, it would seem that daring to be your unique self and thus taking the risk of standing out from and perhaps in opposition to the crowd and speaking – no, being – your truth, particularly if your truth is shaped by your moral principles, is well, just asking for trouble. And, of course, it is just asking for trouble. Because personal authenticity is about fidelity to the truth of who you are as you evolve in a life-long process: how you genuinely feel, what you genuinely believe etc. It’s Being with a capital ‘B’ in the process of being what you are, not pretending to be what you’re not for an easier life or from fear of being rejected by the outside world. In this sense it is about declaring we have value just by being who we are, rather than worth that is dependent upon the judgements and conditions of others.
And so fidelity to the truth as it unfolds in you isn’t, of course, synonymous with being true to the State, the institution, the corporation, the manager, the authority figure, the peer group, the policies and procedures manual, the latest fashion. Very often personal authenticity demands that we are forced to stand apart from the crowd, not out of narcissistic self-indulgence, but out of a refusal to support or remain silent about the often socially-engineered, manipulated consensus. In doing so we risk the crowd’s disapproval, rejection or punishment. At the same time we affirm our existential value by being our truth: the truth of our inner world (see link above on Self-Esteem)
In a world of small talk, cliched conversation, jargon and jingoisms, passing trends, the celebration of pretense, the desperate love of money and status, celebrity worship and a hyper-focus on appearance and the pursuit of vanity, it becomes all the more anxiety-provoking to dare to be who you actually are if this means not fitting in with all that is popular. Because being real in a world so false means, literally, sticking your neck out.
What Is, and What Appears to Be
And let’s not confuse ‘being who you are’ with ‘appearing to be genuine or unique’. I did my first degree in Art School and quickly realised that Art Schools are full of young adults all trying desperately to look unique. So much so that many of them ended up dressing up in the same Art School thrift store clothing as they embraced a stereotype of uniqueness based in unwitting conformity to a shared idea of what constitutes being ‘cool’. It is the same drive that prompts many young people to take up smoking, alcohol or drugs, or to engage in acitivities that might ensure them greater crowd acceptance or kudos. Go into any field of endeavour or career and you find the same phenomena in all of its varied forms. Psychotherapy training, for example, is shaped by the same cliches disguised as original thinking and ‘personal evolution’, as is the world of finance, law, politics, medicine and anything else populated by people jostling for a position of acceptance. And so the fundamental need for acceptance appears to be one need that can mitigate against our need to be authentic. (I’ll be writing on this in a second part)
What my grandfather taught me – ironically by not going out of his way to teach me at all – was that it is possible to be a flawed human being and still be real without deliberately drawing attention to yourself. He had a quiet way about him – a stoicism that could calm down a room of over-anxious cousins, aunts and uncles. But he was real. And when he spoke, you could tell he meant what he said and that he had absolutely nothing to prove. No matter how false or lost from ourselves we might become, I strongly suspect that we all know when someone is speaking from their soul. Because when you see or hear someone who is the real deal you can feel it. It is only because there are so few people in the world who commit themselves to their own path in becoming who they are in themselves, that we so easily forget that same potential in ourselves and the power we have when we truly connect with our moment-to-moment truth in a straightforward, unpretentious manner. And then dare to act and speak from that place.
But my grandfather lived in a time when there seemed to be a lot more personal authenticity going around, and so it wasn’t as unusual as it seems now. We still had a sense of community back then. Neighbours knew one another. There was less money around amongst the working class of Glasgow, and thus a shared sense of being in it together. You still see a greater level of community trust and cooperation in places like Poland. But you can also see it being on the cusp of decline as the country becomes more westernised and the emphasis shifts from relationships to materialism.
“People dont want to hear the truth because they dont want their illusions destroyed”
Personal authenticity today – in a world as false and as lost as ours is at the present time – is to my mind the ultimate act of bravery. Because it is courage in the face of a culture of State-created fear, and carries the very real possibility of rejection and humiliation. It can draw unwanted attention your way and a wide variety of forms of destructive envy as some are unable to tolerate your ‘bravery’ in daring to be you.
And it isn’t about just saying whatever you feel like saying, or being whimsical and capricious, indulging each momentary notion that passes through your head. It has to be grounded in a set of values that you have earned through fidelity to what you believe in and an earnest process of learning about life by continuing to do so, even in the face of adversity and scorn. Moral relativism doesn’t particularly require courage, so much as a willingness to be ‘laid back’about what others are doing. You only need courage when you have something to stick your neck out for.
And what greater reason to stick your neck out than your one, short, finite life and the lives of those you care about?
“Are you genuine? or only an actor? A representative, or that itself which is represented?”
Whilst we can easily conclude then, that personal authenticity seems to be a path with few rewards and a lot of risks, why then would anyone in their right mind want to follow such a path? I’ll talk more about that in Part 2….
Some people who dared to stick their necks out:
Featured artwork: ‘Girona Man’. Charcoal on paper, by the author
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