This morning I read a commentary on CNN, called “Take a risk and put your true self out there”. The commentary is about the author’s research into human behavior, and, more specifically, into the trait of authenticity. She argues that authenticity “has become one of those buzzwords that we love to hate,” and that it “entered the popular lexicon because it tapped into something powerful in our culture.”
I did not realize that authenticity had become a buzzword, and that people hated it. Nor did I realize that it has tapped into something powerful in our culture – what she calls a yearning for more meaningful interactions and less pretending. With all of the so-called “reality television” showing us the opposite, and all of the noise people are making in the press about one thing or another (especially politics), I wonder whether there really is such a yearning, or whether the fear in which we live is covering it up.
Though she takes a while to get to her point, she eventually makes it, talking about what authenticity is, arguing that it is a collection of conscious choices of how we want to live, of taking chances and being honest, being vulnerable, and and engaging with the world from a place of worthiness rather than a place of shame or “never enough.””
Is authenticity a serious of choices? Do we choose to be who we really are?
Her essay made me think about a conversation I had with a friend of mine this past week. I am going through what all exiting PCVs go through – a process of separation, of preparing to leave our country. Part of the time I feel numb, and am just waiting for my exit day. The other part of the time, I am processing again, and it makes me think of so much – of who I was when I arrived, of the experiences I have had here, of the every day processing I used to do, the questions I used to ask, which I no longer ask.
This is not to say that I have the answers – more like, I have become more comfortable with the every day questions, and I see in my friends who have been here less time than me some of the things I used to fight, with which I used to struggle. However, of all of the changes I have undergone through this experience, I realize that the most important part of me has not changed – the authenticity with which I live my life.
Living your life with authenticity is not easy, because our society demands that we compromise who we are in order to achieve success. Those of us who are forced to compromise inevitably end up unhappy in our lives because we are not living them in an authentic way – we are not being honest about who we are. Either that, or we live our lives in an authentic way and end up very lonely.
I have a feeling this compromise is a common thing, given how unhappy people are. It is also then easy to attack others who try to live in an authentic way, because they scare us. People who are authentic scare other people – they are not always well-liked, and are often attacked for being an outsider, for being different in any way.
Back to the conversation with my friend. She told me that she had been praying for me, and how grateful she was to have me in her life. Needless to say, this is not something I hear very often, so I asked her to elaborate (it was a bad day, and I will always take the chance to listen to kindnesses – they are so rare). She mentioned my honesty, my directness, and my authenticity (though she used different words). She said she was glad she was able to look past what stops so many people, and leads them to judge me rather than to get to know me. She said that I truly treat people in the way I want to be treated – the golden rule.
Now, these are very kind words on her part. I cannot say I am perfect and always the kindest person – I do try, but I get in my own way, or I get reactive. But it is a constant process on my part to not do so – when I get an e-mail that upsets me, to not respond, but to realize that the other person is coming from a very different place than I am and that he communicates in a very different way than I do. When I hear gossip and judging about another person, to clarify with the person saying it instead of becoming upset with the person for spreading it. To give people the benefit of the doubt, because I don’t know what is causing them to say the things they say in the way they say them. To really be who I am, and to be unafraid of being hurt by others.
Authenticity takes strength and courage – to be willing to undergo attack, or to have others avoid you, because of who you are.
The basis of what she said, and going back to what the CNN commentator said, about authenticity – I find it interesting that the commentator believed that it is a choice to live in an authentic way, because for me, it’s not – I cannot live in any other way. I cannot be dishonest, and intentionally hurtful to others. I can be direct and honest, which I am (and which I have found makes me rather unpopular) and have learned through the years to temper it with tact, because directness can be painful too. People aren’t really good at looking inside themselves and accepting the negatives – and we ALL have negatives. People want to think that pretending is better than being real. And in all honesty, sometimes I pretend too – because to be myself with everyone is too painful.
That’s fear speaking – my fear, the fear of other people, and it bothers me that there is so much of it in our world today, because fear is what all of these other behaviors stem from. Fear leads to cruelty, and as the commentator said, “Cruelty is cheap and rampant — especially when you attack and criticize anonymously, as technology and the Internet allow so many people to do these days.”
Why do people fear change so much? Why do we fear being authentic with others? Is it worse to be authentic and to be attacked or to pretend and to have something inside of you that dies a little bit each time?
The commentator said: “I believe there’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don’t just go away. They are likely to fester inside and eat away at our sense of worthiness.
However afraid we are of change, the question that we must ultimately answer is this: What’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think, or letting go of how I feel and what I believe and who I am? ”
These are questions which we should all ask ourselves when we ask who we want to be, and how we want to live our lives. Because ultimately, it is not about what others think – it is about what each of us thinks, who we want to be, and what sort of impact we want to make in the world.
The impact I want to make in the world is a positive one. So every day I keep trying to live my life in an authentic way. Some days I am more successful at it than others. But every day I try, and that is all I can ask of myself.