I’ve been thinking about authenticity during the last couple of weeks.
What, exactly, does it mean?
Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being genuine or real.”
It seems simple enough, until one pauses to think about what “real” means, especially in the current cultural and political context of “alternative facts” and disinformation.
Recently I went through all my old photographs from the days when we took our film somewhere and had it developed. As I thumbed through photos of the first fifty years of my life, looking at all those younger versions of myself in the context of family, friends, and places, I was struck (not for the first time) by how one-dimensional a photograph is. One single moment in time recorded visually. As I was there when the picture was taken, I remember the emotional context of those recorded moments, the relationships, the quality of my experience; but showing the pictures to someone else is like taking the cover off a book and trying to convey the story with just that.
We know this, yet we continue to take selfies and be utterly seduced by pretty pictures, nowadays filtered, air-brushed, and otherwise enhanced. Some part of us believes in that fantasy, envies it, longs for it.
Is a picture authenticity?
No, of course not. But my pictures do record visual moments in a real life: My childhood, long-dead pets, family, trips, school years, my first job, my first day at college, and my years raising two sons. A real person experienced all that, but not quite the same real person I am today.
Authenticity, then, changes as we change. We age, we grow, we learn, people around us come and go, we move from place to place.
I think of authenticity as a positive quality, one to aspire to and practice. I admire real people, and find them attractive. In some relationships, however, practicing authenticity is dangerous and severely punished. When children repeatedly experience negative consequences for their authenticity, they are effectively crippled in their ability to self-express and form healthy attachments. In order to survive emotionally, they create a pseudo self.
For some, being real or genuine is a horrifying risk. Here is a quote from Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People:
“I have heard many people … say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality … they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.” … the Controller experiences this depth of authenticity as an enormous assault.”
When we are children, our sense of self is curated by the adults around us. Too many children internalize relentless criticism and contempt from their caregivers and carry it into adulthood in the form of a vicious internal critic. In this case, what feels like authenticity becomes a lie based on negative beliefs. The genuine, worthy human being is invisible, especially to him or herself, under a crust of trauma and abuse so old it feels real. Ironically, a palliative for this is to risk authenticity with a healthy other and be able to hear a challenge to the false beliefs obscuring our true selves. Sometimes a loving, compassionate onlooker can see us much more clearly than we see ourselves.
I found an article in Psychology Today about authenticity that was thought-provoking. The author lists qualities of authentic people, including emotional intelligence, the ability to learn, and being able to perceive reality.
Perceiving reality has become an enormous cultural problem recently, as you may have noticed! It makes sense that a person practicing authenticity must be able to recognize what’s real and genuine externally as well as internally.
Being authentic sounds so easy. A simple choice. I haven’t realized before writing this post how difficult it is. We can’t choose it if we don’t know what it is, and discovering what’s real, both inside and outside us, is a daunting challenge.
Authenticity is approached by many paths. The practice of minimalism is one. Peeling away layers of stuff and clutter leads to peeling away toxic habits, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which helps us peel away weight, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and a multitude of other unhealthy debris.
Another road to authenticity is creativity. I myself discovered decades ago I’m incapable of expressing anything but truth in my writing, particularly journaling for my eyes alone. Our creative work can expose our deepest selves.
Yet another path is emotional intelligence and healing old trauma. The habits of mindfulness and self-inquiry, the willingness to reveal our scars and wounds and express the truth of our experience to others, help us discern the difference between who we really are, who someone told us we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we wish we could be.
As I work on my new site (yes, yes, it’s coming!), one of the things I’m working with is reorganizing and recategorizing my content, which amounts to 250 posts. Going through all this content chronologically, starting at the beginning with my first post during the summer of 2016, has been a fascinating and lengthy process. Each post is entirely authentic, but I can clearly see change and progress from week to week, month to month, year to year. The woman who wrote that first post is not quite the woman who writes this one. Yet both are (were) practicing authenticity.
I can’t think of anyone more authentic than a newborn baby. Maybe life is a journey from a state of absolute, completely innocent authenticity, through chaos and identity confusion and enormous cultural and societal pressures, and gradual reclamation of who we were born to be, less innocent, but more fully ourselves, as we grow old.
Certainly, I feel more authentic in this moment than I did when I wrote my first blog post. Will I be more authentic yet in a year? In two years? In five?
Interestingly, my new site says “A Journey Into Power” on the landing page, and authenticity is one of my categories. To be seen, heard, and loved for our real selves is a core human need, a longing we all share.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty acknowledging and even honoring differences within a framework of checks and balances so one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?