The Trap of Authenticity
Being ‘the real you’ is the destination of the modern person, pursuing the claim to be put in contact with the singular ‘I.’ This destination at the end of a journey, spiritual and/or existential, is, ironically, a place of stopping change. Every step along the way required working within the push and pull of social and personal influences, judging oneself with an ideal, all to reach a place where change no longer occurs. Sound strange? Consider how authenticity is often portrayed. Spoken of in near-religious reverence, the authentic person is consistent, doesn’t question who they are or what they do and above all those around feel a sense of rightness in their presence.
A Narrow Vision Supporting Judgment
While larger-than-life spiritual leaders are often looked at as being authentic, for the common person it is used almost entirely in juxtaposition to perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency. This use is where the journey of change to the destination of stagnation can be seen as horribly unhelpful. We’re supposed to cherish authenticity, yet celebrate when someone makes a change in their life. A quick addendum will show why this is a problem: the celebration comes when the change is agreed with. As soon as it’s a change that isn’t agreed with, then it’s no longer in the pursuit of authenticity, instead it’s hypocrisy.
Authenticity becomes a cudgel to use on people to tow a perceptual line, named and detailed by the vision of others. This myopic view of a person ignores the interlocking stories of their life. We are not simple creatures, locked into the 1’s and 0’s of a computer program, where we’re either on or off in line with a command. A behavior exists to support the story or Narrative a person, in a given context, has identified as important (i.e. a Value). This in no way means other things aren’t important to them, or that there are no other Narratives they’re living by.
A single person can be Sibling, Spouse, Child, Employee, Citizen, Human-being, Community-Member, Group-Member, etc. Each of these labels, only a handful, come with more Narratives attached based on personal history, education, relationships and immediate social context. Those Narratives are supporting a host of Values or what the person cares about, each triggered by a number of internal and external variables. Our lives are not straight lines and they are not doors being closed or open. We live in a matrix of competing potential identities, all vying for our attention to support behavior that, in a given context, keeps the world making sense to our perception.
An Authenticity of Inquiry Not Action
Rather than haranguing ourselves and others about an authenticity that has more to do with judgment and dismissal, we can instead ask questions. Instead of limiting our interactions to an either/or of complete agreement, we can increase our understanding of how life is working in ways we hadn’t considered.
- Given the context, what Value or concern is most important?
- How is the person framing what that Value means to them in the situation?
- With this Narrative in mind, how is the person’s behavior supporting what they care about?
These questions move us away from a simplistic view of a life journey and into an appreciation for how many pressures/desires/needs/wants/influences we’re all trying to juggle in every moment of every day. Authenticity, instead of focusing on a narrow future ideal, can be an inspiration to explore the nuances of our interaction with the many layers of life.