Two men are sitting together on a boardwalk bench on a warm Sunday afternoon. They’re staring blankly into space, their entire attention consumed by the hypnotizing rhythm of the ocean waves. The two have never met before, yet impulsively, a conversation arises. Neither remembers who started it. Neither ones cares. Small talk plays out its usual course; Rob, it turns out, is a garbage collector, while Jim is a powerful executive. With perfect fluidity, the conversation treads into deeper waters, as meaningful topics begin to emerge concerning life goals, purpose and happiness.
Rob’s dressed in a pair of modest board shorts and a sagging plaid shirt he grabbed from the Old Navy clearance bin. He recalls his life story with a brilliant radiance, infused with the tranquillity of the passing fresh breeze, every word oozing with positive energy. Without inhibition, or much delay for that matter, he uncovers the things that make him happy: witnessing the fruits of his labour, helping others, camping, and playing with his 5 year old daughter. We learn he has been committed to his craft for a quarter of a century, feeling absolutely no pressure to please anyone or do anything else.
Jim appears to be hanging on to every word—a master of the art of fiegned interest, offering perfectly timed affirmative nods, grunts and ‘mmhmms,’ when needed—yet inside his brain malicious synapses are firing off. He’s subconsciously comparing himself to every anecdote, accomplishment and tale coming out of Rob’s mouth, sabotaging himself of any chance of empathy or true human connection.
After readjusting his Hermes belt and wiping a smudge off his Cartier shades, Jim strains for a positive twist to his life story, grasping at obscure past memories to no avail; his hardwired cynical brain quickly takes the reigns and vomits out a diatribe about the stresses that plague his life and the responsibilities that torment his soul. He details the panic and anxiety that overwhelmed him during last Thursday morning’s executive meeting, when he had to approve the layoffs of 100 workers to appease shareholder demands. He runs on no less than 5 coffees a day, routinely bails on everything from weddings to little Jimmie’s baseball practice, and feels a deeply supressed sense of remorse for it all. Moreover, what Jim doesn’t disclose is that secretly, ever since he was a child, he always wanted to be a veterinarian.
Breaking it Down
Alright. The characters are fictional, their stories fabricated, their journeys exaggerated, and I may have sprinkled a tad too much flavour out of my Hollywood spice jar than what this recipe calls for… yet the moral of the story here, I hope, should by now be plainly obvious.
What categorizes the difference between the two men? Could it be biological differences, like age? Physical attributes, like height or appearance? Material possessions? Accomplishments? Or is it something more difficult to pinpoint, like their demeanour or moral compass? Could it simply be their personality (or rather, personality faults)? All valid ways we use to label people, sure, but not quite what I’m getting at.
I believe there’s a far deeper sensation at play here, hiding imperceptibly beneath all the former categories, connecting them all, tangling and enmeshing them all in a web of commonality. It’s a word so basic to digest, so easy to remember, yet so frequently abused and loaded with odd meaning.
The guessing game is over. One is living authentically (I’ll let you guess which one), the other is not.
Rob revels in his profession, an unsung hero that is steadfast in his approach to life and surefooted in deciding the things that are important to him. He treasures the things close to him, including his wife and daughter, and rejoices in seeing the positive effect of his contributions to society. His life has synchronicity and meaning, being true to his most intimate desires. He doesn’t crave much, beyond the occasional Klondike bar and 6pm nap. His modesty makes him who he is—and he wouldn’t trade it for the world. If he had to live his life all over again, you can be damn sure things would play out exactly as they did. And that makes him authentic.
Jim, on the other hand, appearing polished and composed on the outside, is experiencing internal strife. He is the by-product of a chaotic set of choices, with no congruity between his desires and actions. Every day he tangoes with only willing partner, Mrs. cognitive dissonance, steadily building up a backlog of cancerous journey entries in his favourite diary, Guilty Conscience, all neatly stacked in his repressed subconscious. He has abandoned his childhood dream of treating animals as a vet, and instead, has resorted to treating his subordinates like Old Yeller. His personal relations are down the train, and he deludes himself every day, telling himself he’s happy, by indulging in some random expensive purchase. He continues to accumulate a plaque-like build-up of regret, immoral choices and shame. And he hasn’t visited a dentist in years. There is an undeniably massive gap between the life he’s chosen to live, and the life he yearns for, perhaps unknowingly, deep down inside. And that makes him inauthentic.
What is Authenticity?
Authenticity, like many words, is vulnerable to the bastardization of language, and could easily obscure in definition a century from today. Which really sucks (what did “really sucks” mean 300 years ago?), because if words had human feelings, I bet they’d be really upset about losing authenticity (see what I did there?)
So to be clear, within the context of this article, I’ll define living an authentic life as ‘living a life as close as possible to what your true self desires’.
“True self”? What the hell am I blabbering about? Is Benny an omniscient shaman who floats on a plane of consciousness above us mere mortals? Not quite (but probably so in a parallel universe). Yes, I’ve submitted to using the words ‘true self’ in my definition of authenticity above because they’re as close as possible to what I want to express under the constraints of the English language. After all, our perceptions, ideas, emotions and even the way we see the world is largely bound by the language of our thoughts.
By “true self” I’m referring to your very essence, to that intuitive hunch that senses and experiences the world. Your true self comprises your deepest desires, your most profound wishes and your most significant purpose.
I’m talking about that other voice living inside your head (I promise, I’m not schizophrenic) that’s been present, and in many cases overlooked, during your whole life. The little voice is your personal tour guide into your barren unconscious, swimmingly stealthily in the background, yet always there, by your side, guiding you throughout your entire life. The one that drives our intuition. The one that makes you second guess what your life has become and where it’s headed 2 am in the morning. The one that ‘feels,’ rather than thinks. You know the one.
You may not have noticed it consciously, but that little voice is quietly operating in your psyche every day. That little voice reaps the benefits or absorbs the losses of your daily battles of morality, choice and meaning. Ordinary parts of your identity like your occupation; common behaviour, like your treatment of others; and important decisions, like boycotting a company on moral grounds are all either in line or against this little voice. That is to say, that actions which are in accordance with ‘the voice’ draw your closer to you it, while actions against it draw you further away.
I believe the greater the distance you find yourself from this voice–your true self–the unhappier you’d be. And by contrast, the more aligned your real life is to your ‘true self,’ the happier, richer and more authentic life you’d be living.
Let me illustrate my point with a metaphor. Your ‘true self’ is a cerebral soup that has been brewing since birth. You’re in full capacity to change its flavour by adding ingredients, and you do so, at regular intervals, as you grow physically and mature intellectually. Each ingredient that you’ve added over the years is a choice, decision or action that has made your soup taste better or worse.This concoction, by the time you’ve reached middle age, becomes much thicker, making it difficult to discern each ingredient and taste every flavour. You’re free to add ingredients whenever you like, but the more ingredients you’ve added, the harder it is to substantially change the flavour. The person who judges the taste of your soup is your ‘true self,’ your subconscious. The better tasting the soup, the more authentic you are, and chances are, the happier and more fulfilled you’ll feel.
Authenticity is integral to our conscious being. The aspiration to live authentically is universal and widespread to all cultures, religions, upbringings and identities. A universal truth rarely spoken about, yet cardinal in the way we perceive ourselves. Strip away all the comforts and facades of work, possessions, and status and you’ll uncover it as a very intrinsic, yet incorporeal part of every person. It’s a quality as integral to the human experience as sleeping, eating and reproducing.
Some real-life context.
Surprisingly, the topic of living authentically is embedded in all of our regular lives, yet we’re oblivious to its ubiquity. It’s present in many of our daily interactions, and pops up all the time, just camouflaged under a different theme. Is it a coincidence that we have expressions in the English language like “keep it 100” or “being real”? That we’ve had popular advice mantras cemented in our heads since childhood, like “just be yourself?” What do you think rappers are getting at when they rant about people “acting fake?” What are these celebrity suicides all about—don’t they have everything they want, and more, in life? These examples, in one way or another, all boil down to the same diluted version of the discussion about authenticity that I’ve been examining here. So why are rappers rapping, celebrities dying and people getting depressed?
Because the smallest accident or wrong influence can send you snowballing away from an authentic life. Think of all the peer pressure we experience in high school to do ‘what’s cool.’ Of the powerful brainwashing effect of the media, slowly pouring cement in the conduit between what you’ve been told to feel versus what you really feel. Of the crude advertising, rampant everywhere we look, defiling young impressionable minds to cave to the status quo. Of all the internal turmoil that forced marriages, forced careers and forced relationships create. These are all so painful because they’re all so incongruous with who we really are compared to who we want to be. They divert us from happiness and self-actualization.
Living authentically, to put simply, isn’t easy. Building an authentic life requires months, years, decades of hard work to establish, and a lifetime of willful effort to maintain. Is spending years preparing and is budgeting a six figure digit of expenses worth it to climb Mount Everest in Nepal? Is it mere boredom that makes people volunteer in a third world country, or is there more to it? Is running a triathlon simple? Have the indigenous tribes of Peru, long before commercializing into a contemporary tourist attraction, ingested potent batches of ayuhausca just to see pretty colours? Is raising a human being for 18 years, sacrificing sleep, personal comfort and sanity, an easily attainable goal? All former examples are profoundly difficult, unmistakably challenging, yet ultimately, rejuvenating for the soul. I would argue they’re all valid examples of people attempting an activity in sync with their version of an authentic life, pursuing their innermost desires, in line with their true self.
Sound like too much work? There’s no shortcuts. And the risks couldn’t be higher. If you subscribe to any secular ideology that there’s no afterlife—meaning this life, indeed, is the one and only life that you have, and is your only chance to experience raw existence—then why wouldn’t you spend a lifetime trying to achieve the nirvana of living as closely as possible to your true self?
Well gee wiz mister, all this sure does sound fine and dandy, but what am I to do about it all? Settle down now, Sue-Anne, put down those Cocoa puffs and come hither. Scooch a little over to the right, Carl Jung, this couch is big enough for the both of us. In next week’s edition, Uncle Bernard will soothe your troubled heart with some good, actionable advice on living more authentically.
EDIT: I received a comment about my post on Facebook, and liked it enough to add it in here. Thanks Andrew
Whether you live authentically – really doing what gives you joy – will determine the quality of your life and will have a great impact on those around you. We are born and institutionalized from the age of 5 and basically have our entire psychology molded by a collectivist system. MOST people don’t take the time (because they think they dont have the time) to slow down a bit, and actually try to figure out what THEY value. Everyone has different values, and our system is not designed to help people find their unique values and prioritize them, but imposes a sweeping set of values on everyone.