Monday, 18 May 2020

The Sweet Fruits of Authenticity

 Posted by Lina Scarborough
Think of the most authentic version of yourself. What do you see? Perhaps someone who has more than what you currently do—more skills, more money, more possessions—like a house and a car. Or perhaps more time and will power to pursue passions, or better relationships and fitness levels.
In other words, it would be a ‘sage’ ideal of oneself, travelling into a future point in time to when one has acquired success and achieved milestones.

But if I think of my most authentic version of myself, I am a young child again. A girl, around 8 or 10 years old, running through the forest park near home, gathering berries with my mother. The thorns pricked so very badly, but I was stubborn enough to throw myself into the bushes anyway. I had enough experience getting scratches from our cat to treat them nonchalantly anyway.

As I child, I never knew what exactly I wanted to become. I had fleeting ideas—a kindergarten teacher (out of a learned fear of any maths more complex than numeracy). A butterfly scientist (quickly shot down by mother dearest, a no-nonsense Russian gastroenterologist). The closest I had to a ‘dream’ was to travel the world, trying every ice-cream flavor on the planet, including funky ones like squid ink (yes, it actually exists, it’s called Ikasumi ice-cream). But as life would have it, I developed an adolescent onset of lactose intolerance.

All I knew was that I wanted to become an adventurer. I wanted to be like the cool heroes I saw in video games and animations, pirates and space cowboys, princesses with magic powers with a loyal band of friends—and importantly, a sense of mission. I pictured myself as a female version of Indiana Jones, or a kind of Lara Croft, but I was born too late. It seemed like everything cool and exciting had been explored! And no one would pay me to live a life like Indiana Jones!

Of course, that’s not true. At least the first part isn’t. The discoveries and environments of adventure have simply changed shape. Instead of conquering the wilds of Peru, the modern-day explorers pave the way in nanotechnology, AI, and all kinds of other scientific adventures.

Alas. I am no nano-butterfly brain surgeon. That world is not for me. Thus, the closest you’d get to the old-fashioned type of adventurer would be an astronaut or a game ranger, but these too are exceptional, rather than easily attainable paths.

Apart from that, all kinds of life factors impact the reasons behind our choices. Do we choose our jobs, partners, even mundane things like the kind of clothes we wear or the music we listen to, out of authenticity to ourselves, or out of society and family, or peer-pressure? Of course, for most people, their motivations will fall on some spectrum of a blend of authentic and forced choices.

The next question that is begged though, is whether or not authenticity is a good thing. Consider; if Hitler’s authentic version of an ideal world was one of mass genocide, is that a good thing? Obviously not.

This is one of the reasons I wished my peers—millennials and younger—would not place such great value on the individual—or even worse, the individual’s fleeting feelings. Too little authenticity, and we may very well land up in a cult-like dictatorship; too much, and we lose a great part of what it means to be human. No man is an island entire of itself; an overused, but wise quote. To be entirely authentic is to discredit how those we love and fear, admire and detest have and can shape us. It discredits the bond that is formed along the way.

To idealise authenticity or one’s own feelings is to firmly isolate oneself inside one’s head and tape one’s eyes and heart shut. We will always need a guiding entity to determine whether our motivations—sincere as they might be—are actually good and truthful to goodness or not.

I used to be exceptionally good at dance and gymnastics. I was the lead in several school productions. I had forgotten this. After my mother’s passing, I dropped all forms of artistic expression. I stopped dancing and writing and playing piano for almost 10 years, and pursued a career I rationalised was safest for my economic well-being—but not one that was aligned to authentic self—to the curious, ever-exploring and gleeful child in me.

Perhaps that is why God had me fall in love with a man like my husband. Someone who firmly believes that following one’s passion will, eventually, lead to financial stable means. Eight years ago, he perchance opened a book on elephants and mammoths. Today, he’s awaiting the response to his PhD submission on the dwarf elephants of Sicily.

As the decade-anniversary of my mothers passing nears, God rest her soul, I reflect on how I came to be where I am today, and where I, at the tender age of a quarter-century, am headed. My choices have often not been authentic, mostly out of fear of failure and hardship. Both I have received nonetheless, in various portions; I might as well be as brave as the child I was, unafraid of the thorns in pursuit of the sweet, sweet berries of truth and earnest passion.


Martin Cohen said...

Thank you for all these very personal reflections, Lina! My own feeling about 'authenticity', that great icon of the existentialist philosophers, is that yes, it is rather egocentric and rather overrated And, as they say at the same time, 'inauthenticity' is a danger, sometimes destructive, often corrosive. And yet I think Sartre's famous example of the waiter gives the game away here. A waiter is playing a little role, yes, little flourishes, a certain manner… but the game is played with others, FOR others. In authenticity is waht makes socail life possible. We should celebrate it. In our persona lives, I think marriages require this kind of inauthenticity, the sublimation of the ego in order to preserve some shared existence. How much misery is created, in how many ways, by those who seek only their authentic selves?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Authenticity would seem to be a problem in that it has too much to do with oneself. Is one not more authentic as one 'delivers oneself' to others? This Lina suggests.

There is another kind of authenticity that I see: the wind in our hair, the smell of the rain, or the rising of the sun. As our lives become easier to predict, more manage­able, more secure, this slips away.

Keith said...

I believe, Lina, that one should regard his or her ‘authentic’ self as whatever the person is at any single point in time: the sum of what one has become, as a person, to that moment. Including connections with people and surroundings, based on values. In my opinion, one may well aspire to be more than what he or she is now, in some fashion or another; or not. Change is arguably good, if properly directed — better, I propose, than inertia. However, I don’t regard any such aspirational version of a person as ‘authentic’ per se unless and until he or she gets there; and, that person shouldn’t feel less authentic in the meantime. That is, I see a line drawn between what the person is now — the authentic him or her in the now — and what the person is later — the authentic him or her ‘in the later’. So, importantly, I would urge that a person apply the term ‘authenticity’ nonjudgmentally. That is, to define the totality of whom the person is now — the degree to which one has already achieved or skipped over prior aspirations, hopefully with intent and purpose. Life’s mission should be a moving target, right? One might hope that a person’s ‘me’ in the now isn’t the entirety of what’s accomplishable, which would imply one of two equally unattractive positions, both of which, perhaps to state the obvious, should be avoided: self-satisfaction or defeatism.

Lina Scarborough said...

Thank you all for your comments! I enjoyed reading and reflecting upon them. @Keith, you have a very good point which I did not cover, in the relationship between authenticity and time; the present time being arguably the most critical frame of reference. I will keep this in mind!
My intention didn't start out with publishing this piece - hence it is by far the most personal article I have published.

Martin Cohen said...

Surely, Keith, the central point of "authenticity" is the making of a judgement? To be authentic is better than to be "inauthentic"…

Keith said...

‘To be authentic is better than to be inauthentic’.

Maybe not necessarily, Martin.

If a hit man faithfully and comfortably and consistently followed his creed and line of work lifelong, he would be behaving ‘authentically’, in accordance with his own personal values.

In this instance, however, I’d prefer he behave ‘inauthentically’ by resisting his instincts, creed, and natural values, and worked instead (even if reluctantly) as the head of a charity organisation for orphaned infants.

I’d offer that in this scenario, to be ‘authentic’ is *not* better than to be ‘inauthentic’.

Keith said...

“Surely, the central point of ‘authenticity’ is the making of judgment?” It can; but I think it depends on context and usage, especially colloquialism and connotation versus denotation . . .

So, what I was narrowly intending to refer to, Martin, in saying “I would argue that a person apply the term ‘authenticity’ nonjudgmentally“ is that no matter what one has become in life, he or she not ‘beat themselves up’ over the sum of the individual at any point in time. In this context and with this usage, I was using the word ‘nonjudgmentally’ in the more specific, narrow sense of inordinately, unhelpfully, even destructively *disparaging* the authentic self. That’s a particular connotative, even colloquial, use of the word ‘nonjudgmentally’ as it appeared in my earlier comment.

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