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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A different view on authenticity

Romanticism – the late 18th and early 19th century movement in literature and art in which nature rather than civilization was adored and celebrated – awakened one of the most powerful ideas of this period: the desire for authenticity. Ever since Romanticism, it seems, we want to live authentically – we wish to find ourselves, become ourselves, be ourselves. We adore young children for speaking the truth and not being burdened with social conventions and other inhibitions. Our culture seems close to obsessed with authenticity, in private life as in the corporate world where the books on authentic leadership are numerous.

In grocery stores food labels yell at us, prompting us to fall in the authenticity-trap with texts like “no artificial nothings”, “pure butter”, and “real cream”. Commercials are often set in nature to convince us that the advertisers’ products or services are healthy, pure, trustworthy, and with all natural ingredients. Commercials from vacation packages to medical treatments to cars to you-name-it bombard us with “the real thing” idea. I increasingly see, however, the artificiality of authenticity. The forced search for the ‘real thing’, which might not just be one thing, which might be different things to different people, different things to one and the same person in different periods in his life, which might be culturally determined or at least influenced. I might even be able to replace the ‘might’ by ‘most certainly is’.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger on the topic: We often think that authenticity is the same as non-conformism or insubordination, but authenticity is opening yourself up for the possibilities of tradition. Exactly when we try and distinguish ourselves from others by wearing eccentric clothes, for example, we take others and their opinion and taste as a starting point for our choices, which doesn’t exactly feel authentic. If we want to form our own opinion, it doesn’t help to just oppose someone else’s opinion. Heidegger suggests we find out for ourselves how to live authentically. I like that idea.

With all the fuzz about the buzz word ‘authenticity’, three questions seem to pop up time and again when the topic of authenticity is being dissected, which I myself took part of in a much earlier post, just to be clear.

Question # 1: Who am I?
Am I what I believe and think? Am I what I do, am I my choices? Am I what I eat? Am I what I want others to see of me? Am I what I present to others? Am I all of the above, and is that authentic?

Question # 2: What is an authentic life?
Is it denouncing modern technology and in particular social networks? Is it living on a farm or in the woods? Is it vacationing without modern comforts, back to our roots? Why should we do away with all those inventions that made life so much easier? Or is “the authentic life” about the way we use these tools, the way we deal with modern technology, the way we often one-sidedly do away with everything that keeps us close to mother nature? Is it one or the other, is it balance, is it something completely different? Is it dining by candlelight and nature walks? Who will tell? Remains one more question for me to pose to you under this heading: Have you stopped believing in the concept of an authentic life, or are you among the many who still perceive it to be a powerful source of inspiration?

Question # 3: What is true friendship?
Does whether we are in physical contact with each other determine the amount of ‘trueness’ in our friendships? Is the criterion whether we’ve met each other in person? Is it sharing your deepest thoughts, fears, and desires? Is what you post on facebook bringing you the friends that you would get if they were to meet you in real life and if not, is that a good or a bad thing or neither one of them? Is communicating via e-mail, facebook, twitter, blogging, with and without emoticons real communication? Is it impoverished in comparison to real-life contact with gestures, intonation, smells, sounds, touch etc.? Are the hundreds of friendships through social networking sites a caricature of what we all crave deep down inside: true contact, real love, depth, honesty, trust? 

I wonder, how can there ever be a one-size-fits-all definition of any of the above, and why do we seem to crave that in the first place? Why do we seem so hesitant, if not afraid, to define our own real, authentic life, whether others agree or not? According to Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor lies hidden in our quest for authenticity the danger of narcissism. Taylor argues that our longing to be ourselves as much as we can, to do what we want and to say what we think, as individuals, may seem really authentic but aren’t we forgetting that we are also social animals, embedded in a structure, a family, a society? Aren’t manners, written and unwritten rules of interacting, and societal traditions as much part of the real life, of authentic living, even though they might conflict with individual desires and goals?

I could tell you that authentic living, for me, at this point in my life is all about living in the moment while honoring the past and traditions and caring for the future, with loved ones around me, while sharing and spreading the values I care about. I could go on with listing my most precious values and I could put down a different definition of authenticity that probably describes my thoughts on authenticity equally well. But to make it easier and more practical, this is what authenticity is to me:

-       A young child on a bus verbalizing out loud his amazement over the weight of an obese co-passenger.  
-       A dog, totally enmeshed in his own energy, longing to explore and control, enthusiastically tearing off branches from trees in the woods that we were told to respect and leave alone.
-       Telling someone how I think and feel.
-       But, at the same time, honoring my resistance in telling someone honestly how I think and feel, and deciding not to do so, for whatever reason.

These are but four examples of what authenticity means to me. Authenticity is so much, and so personal, and possibly overrated as an ideal. Authenticity is often translated as honesty and integrity whereas I believe it’s much more complicated than that – it’s less black and white. 

What is authenticity to you? Is it different in your personal life as compared to your professional life? Are you willing to form and live your own interpretation?

I’m happy to close this post with French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who believes authenticity is living in accordance with your own inner voice: “We should not base our happiness on the opinion of others if we can find it in our own heart.”

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