scholars and rogues

Questioning authenticity

by Ann Ivins

“An authentic life.”

For some reason, this phrase, neither new nor newly trendy, has been popping up more and more in reading, conversations, casual messages and in-depth debates in my field of awareness lately. For some reason, although I often care very deeply about the people involved in the discussion, the words themselves leave me cold – or perhaps that’s too harsh. Less than cold, then, but also less than moved. I don’t roll my eyes, as at “That’s not fair.” I don’t despise the speaker. I don’t even mind that it’s a cliché whose meaning is entirely dependent upon its user; most human experience fits into well-worn phrases when viewed from the outside. And I understand, once the explanations begin, what different people mean by it: searching for your true work, maybe, or living closer to the land, or connecting more with people than with things. I simply don’t like the descriptor itself nor the way it tends to be used.

What bothers me, I think, is this: the implication that life itself can be inauthentic. Somehow, an inauthentic life lurks among consumer goods and mindless entertainment, surrounding us, seducing us with hot baths and instant food, fossil fuels and SUV’s and jobs we do for the money to buy more and more…  Stop for a moment, please. Stop focusing on the distractions – they are, after all, the products of our own desires, and desire is the most authentic drive humans have.  Is cataloging the extraneous the way to find the essential? Isn’t it more useful to determine the shape of your own humanity than to deride other people’s choices? Is proselytizing ever as effective as quietly living your beliefs?

The six groups of words I find most necessary to my own sanity are questions, not statements of desire, and for all the thought, error and time it takes to arrive at them, the answers are generally simple and specific. I trust simplicity and specificity – that is my own bias, developed through my own experience, but it’s always possible that someone else might find my questions at least interesting, if not useful. So here they are, in no particular order, but much the same as they’ve been for quite a while.

  • What do you create?
  • Whom do you help?
  • What do you protect?
  • What would you suffer for?
  • What have you made better?
  • Who can trust you?

The less the answers contain “myself,” the better and truer I feel. Maybe authenticity, like happiness, is a pleasant side effect rather than an achievable goal.

11 replies »

  1. I think “an authentic life” is really a very subjective phrase. It smacks of ‘finding yourself’ a la Julia Roberts. Like going on a spendy vacation and be the rich whitey trying to ‘find your authentic self’ in a variety of third world vacation locales. OK, you can roll your eyes now!

    I think what many of the users of the phrase mean is the phenomenon wherein a person has never lived their passion, has some deep unfulfilled dreams they feel are important but they keep denying themselves. They feel there’s another life for them other than the one they are leading, a life where they pursue their dreams with abandon.

    Or worst case scenarios such as being a stuck in an abusive relationship. Add to that marriages that have become emotionally dead, but the people haven’t taken the brave step of separating yet.

    Or going to a job you don’t like and acting all politie and stuff even though you’re dying on the inside to get the hell out of there.

    Or the way some folks are with their in-laws and other relatives. They play along, but at the cost of denying how they really feel.

    So the phrase to me means basically any life situation where a person feels they have to deny the truth of what they are really feeling,synonymous with the phrase “living a lie”.

  2. Oh yes. Like I said, I understand what people mean when they explain it. What I don’t like about the phrase or the phenomenon, I guess, is that it’s so often linked to this idea of there being a “perfect” life or an “authentic” life that’s just out there waiting to be discovered… and the “me-ness” of it, sometimes.

    All I know is that I found what makes me happy, what I think is my true work, by figuring out where I could do the most good. Figured it out by trying different things, thinking about it, making mistakes and focusing outward, not in. At least, not all the time. 🙂 My passion? I do that because I have to, fitting it in, grouching about not having enough time but doing it. Authenticity isn’t a finished product, I don’t think. Like happiness: moments of joy, relative peace, good days are the reality of a “happy” life, not constant bliss.

  3. We often talk about authenticity, but in terms of being real, unique and natural, rather than perfect or imperfect. Granted, many of the things we love which are authentic, also happen to be imperfect. We may or may not agree on the definition of the word, but I’m confident that we, meaning you and I and our friends, seek authenticity in our daily lives as much as we seek truth, novelty, adventure and meaning. At least we should.

  4. Is proselytizing ever as effective as quietly living your beliefs? No, it isn’t.

    I can certainly see why the phrase irks you; it’s a hard one to utter without sounding inauthentic. I think we’re running up against a language deficit. Conveying what people mean (assuming they really mean something) by the phrase is difficult and would probably require a great many words, so it’s simply easier to boil it down to a cliche.

    Authenticity in life is also terribly subjective. I’d imagine that for a painter the authentic life would be one filled with both inspiration and time to commit the inspiration to canvas. Me deciding that i’d like to be a painter and doing those things would be an inauthentic life because i’m not a painter. And i’m not sure that the prized, authentic life is something one can decide to find…it finds you; your job is to accept it and go with it. What may be the authentic life during the 20’s is not necessarily an authentic life for the same person in his 30’s.

    Material desires are certainly part of being human and so are not, in and of themselves, inauthentic. But consumption for the sake of it is inauthentic any which way you slice, especially if it’s just consuming cheap crap. It’s flitting. Today everyone goes crazy about the new iPhone; six months later there’s another new iPhone and everyone throws away the one that was the be-all-end-all half a year ago. It’s about more stuff rather than good, beautiful, useful stuff.

    No, authenticity isn’t a finished product. Like the humans who hope for it, it’s a process. Or to boil this down to another cliche, the journey is the destination. Finally, i dislike the word happy. For all your happiness there’s an equal amount of sadness…and we wouldn’t know happiness without the sadness. Contentment is what i’m looking for: the undulating middle ground between happy and sad, with both but dominated by neither.

  5. I’ve also heard it in some very arrogant, prescriptive contexts lately, which may well have something to do with my feelings. Start with yourself first, I think, and start by not worrying so much about your… self? Hmm. Still thinking it through.

  6. I don’t know if this was aimed at me, but it could have been. I’ve been known to use the phrase “inauthentic life,” and all too often about myself. It does have to do with passion – when I use it, it tends to refer specifically to Joseph Campbell’s discussions about “following your bliss.” Here’s what he says:

    You may have success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it – you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, and I hope I don’t sound inauthentic for saying it, but I do wrestle with the fact that I’m not doing a great job of following my bliss, living my passion, etc. I’m trying a lot harder lately, but I am keenly aware of a contradiction between what I DO and what I VALUE.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that so much about my professional life, at least, makes it just about impossible to talk about authenticity without making it sound commodified.

    I’m not thrilled about this, but if I grate on people when I do it, I’m sorry.

  7. Actually, no. It wasn’t aimed at you, Monsieur l’Egoiste.

    It was inspired by a couple of blog posts I’ve read recently,* both of which begin by talking about the need for authenticity and rapidly devolve into open mockery of people who apparently aren’t “authentic” enough. That’s what bothers me: the idea that there is one acceptable kind of truth, that anyone can look at someone else and decide how they fall short. “She drives an SUV – she’s inauthentic.” “He shops at Wal Mart – what a tool of capitalism.” I don’t care for SUV’s or Wal Mart either, but it’s because I’m a snob, albeit often an inverted one, and because I have the luxury to choose.

    When you talk about it, you’re figuring it out for yourself. Only. That’s kind of my point, or where I was headed, anyway.

    *and boy, was I tempted to link to them, but virtue won for once

  8. I was tempted to avoid commenting, as I don’t have much more to say than “I agree.” In addition, however, I might add that anyone suggesting that driving an SUV (or shopping at Walmart or eating cruelty-full foods or anything that human beings do) is somehow not authentic might be using the wrong word. Being a tool of capitalism might be stupid or hypocritical or insensitive or patriotic, depending on your point of view. But inauthentic? Really?

  9. I love your list of questions, Ann. I plan to take some time this weekend specifically to give thought to those things. Thank you.

  10. In the 70’s I worked as a laborer in the Louisiana oilfields with a ragtag bunch that included some barely educated Cajun lifers, a group of Creek Indians from Alabama, and a not particularly useful kid on break from college. When it came time for him to return to school, the collegian walked up to a toothless crane operator named Eddie, stuck out his hand and said, “It’s been real.” Eddie stared at his hand suspiciously, and instead of taking it, asked, “Real what?”