The quest of developing personal authenticity is one that really implies a litany of questions that are both difficult to ask and difficult to answer:
- ‘who am I?’
- ‘what is my context?’
- ‘how long do I have to live?’
- ‘what truly matters to me?’
- ‘do the values I believe I have manifest in my actions?’
- ‘how am I deceiving myself and others?’
- ‘what impact are my words, actions, and inactions having upon the world?’
- ‘what is my purpose in this, my one short life?’
- ‘what are my genuinely held beliefs: politically, personally, spiritually?’
Personal authenticity is not so much a state to be achieved or a ‘true self’ to be uncovered, as much as it is a path marked by a continual commitment to being honest with oneself, to becoming who one is by coming to terms with the falseness and sleights of hand we are all capable of falling into. This is often done in the service of ‘being what I am not in an effort to meet my esteem needs, or meet the expectations of others’. It is about awakening to the reality of personal responsibility and how we as individuals influence and shape the world through our choices, purchases, jobs, relationships, words and silences. It is about a decision to wake up to the call of our unique conscience as it tells us what we are about in the world.
Personal authenticity is a path of self-enquiry and awareness development that never ends. It is a path walked in the service of personal integrity whereby our thoughts, words and actions are kept in alignment, so that our inner and outer worlds move in congruence with one another, and our inner world is in harmony with itself, not in contradiction or conflict. This is why it is crucial to know the reality of our values as we live them, and to ensure that we are living those values rather than simply professing them to the world as badges of honour and merit that attract approval or admiration.
Who am I?
The eternal question seems to only beg even more questions. But a simple way of answering this question is to look at what you do: how do you conduct yourself in the world? Are you true to your values, your conscience, your relationships? Are you false? Are you living for the approval of others? Or by the conviction of your sense of purpose?
Whatsoever any man doth or saith, thou must be [true]; not for any man’s sake, but for thine own nature’s sake; as if either gold, or the emerald, or purple, should ever be saying to themselves, whatsoever any man either doth or saith, I must still be an emerald, and I must keep my colour.
Marcus Aurelius A.D. 121-180
What is my context?
You are not an isolated being. You are, as Heidegger observed, a being-in-the-world, inextricably thrown into a context that is influenced and shaped by others. Your wider context is a short life that ends sooner than we would hope or expect, making death a real and present feature of everyday possibility. As such, the clock is ticking whilst you decide what you want to do with your life. The broader context might be considered ‘eternity’: this then demands our response to the question of what lies before and after our conscious, temporal life has come and gone ‘like a vapour’: questions of God, Creation, meaning, meaninglessness and purpose.
How long do I have to live?
Typically most of us deny the reality of our own death and behave as if life will go on long beyond our fleeting thoughts about it. Sudden, unexpected, unjust death happens to other people, we tell ourselves. But death is an ever-present possibility that can happen suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and long before old age. Having a felt sense of our very real mortality can help sharpen our focus on what’s important, what is worth living for, and help keep us from the frivolous pursuits that many use as distractions in life.
I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought … “You are going on,” I said to myself, “to become an old man, without being anything and without really undertaking to do anything. . . . [W]herever you look about you . . . you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by the telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who make spiritual existence in virtue of thought easier and easier, yet more and more significant. And what are you doing?” . . . [S]uddenly this thought flashed through my mind: “You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must . . . undertake to make something harder.” This notion pleased me immensely. . . . I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere.
What truly matters to me?
Once a time-limited existence becomes a felt reality, the project of identifying what matters versus what is unimportant allows us to avoid wasting precious time on trivia and matters of no consequence. Others’ opinions, approval or admiration may then take their place in a pre-awakened state of development that enslaves many of us to their passing whims and folly. Focussing on what matters within the clenched fist of our own existence means reinvesting precious time and energy in what is truly important, not what can so easily be taken away when our audience changes its mind. Today they throw roses at us, tomorrow rotting fruit.
Do the values I believe I have manifest in my actions?
We can all impress our dinner guests around the table with a well-rehearsed narrative about what we believe in. But it’s only when we are placed in crisis, or hardship that our true values become apparent in our actions. Our real values become apparent in how we conduct ourselves, not necessarily in what we say about ourselves. Being very honest with oneself and living our values is the foundation of personal integrity.
Are you honest; are you fair? […] That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
How am I deceiving myself and others?
This is a question that few of us ask of ourselves. For we deceive ourselves into believing we are true. We are quick to judge others for their lies, deceit or dishonesty. But to some degree all of us are guilty of self-deception, hypocrisy, and of saying one thing and doing another. Authentic relationships are those which support honest and open discourse and discussion where at least one person commits to the difficult task of interpersonal honesty, thereby forcing the hand of the other: towards an authentic response or a retreat to the safety and anonymity of the crowd. Having the courage to engage in authentic relationship with another who comes to us with open hands and heart, allows us to benefit from their observations and insights into our personal blind spots, even where it may cause momentary discomfort. Such is the value of authentic relationship in psychotherapy, for example. By looking at those areas of ourselves that we most fear or which bring up unease, we can allow an expansion of our awareness, courage and ultimately our commitment to the clarity and resolve of personal authenticity, thus reducing or eliminating our own inconsistencies.
What impact are my words, actions, and inactions having upon the world?
It is also rare for us to examine the impact that our words, silences, actions, jobs, votes, allegiances, diet and purchasing decisions have upon the world. Beginning to develop awareness and sensitivity to these impacts and making choices to conduct ourselves and express ourselves in alignment to our values can make us more responsible, mature human beings with a more developed consciousness. Refusing to contribute to the ruin, destruction, exploitation, suffering and corruption in our world not only benefits us as individuals, but humanity and the biosphere as a whole, living, inter-connected context.
What is my purpose in this, my one short life?
A sense of one’s unique purpose becomes apparent when we attune ourselves to all of the above; clarifying what is important, the seriousness and preciousness of life, the values and truths by which we live. Purpose emerges out of doing that in which we can fully invest our belief and conviction. This is why people who have had near-death experiences often report a clarity of purpose following an awakening to the shortness and fragility of life.
There are numerous questions – all invariably difficult by virtue of our habitual resistance to their asking – that invite us to engage with ourselves, others and life in general in a more authentic way. Such a commitment is an act of faith that can liberate us from the shackles and pretence of a life that is often designed by others and handed to us in the form of cultural, educational, political and societal expectations, social roles and norms that can be far from healthy or moral. Indeed, they often compel us to a timeless pantomime of everyday conduct in the service of our Egos: of social status, money, possessions, appearances and greater access to Epicurean thrills.
Personal authenticity is, by contrast, an inward journey and a commitment to listening to a deeper level of Being that waits patiently for our return home, by listening and responding with fidelity. It is the beginning of a spiritual enquiry to what connects us to the fabric and pulse of creation, and our choice of response can mean the difference between a predictable humdrum life of safe and often electively blind conformity, and a vibrant life that is a unique expression of the gift that has been given to us, and that can be appreciated and celebrated. Our choice, then, is the ultimate choice: to take Being seriously or forget ourselves in our absorption in the mundane concerns of the everyday.
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