Authenticity and Transformation

be-authenticMy previous post raised a question about the meaning of “authenticity” — does it apply to beliefs or the state of an individual holding a belief? And why should anyone care anyway?

The OED defines authenticity as “the quality of being authentic” — and authentic means “Of authority, authoritative, entitled to obedience or respect” in the first place. Further down the list in the OED is the meaning I wish to focus on — “Real, actual, genuine, original, first-hand, really proceeeding from its stated source.” Authenticity is the quality of being genuine in one’s depths.

Each person has first-hand knowledge of whether they are being genuine or not. However, as we all know, many times we are unclear about what is actually going on in our inner depths, so ‘being genuine’ is not something that is easy to be confident about. In fact, in humility, each of us must admit that, sometimes, we don’t know ourselves very well at all — and thus we have what might be called ‘existential doubts’ about our own authenticity. So, we don’t usually say “I’m being authentic.” It is a hypothetical concept that we rarely apply to ourselves. But perhaps we should occasionally think more deeply about our authenticity.

Going deeper

Bernard Lonergan is one of my ‘going deeper’ heros. He wrote an 800 page book called Insight on how we arrive at a true understanding about ourselves or anything. In that book, Lonergan says “adequate self-knowledge can be reached by man only at the summit of a long ascent.” In other words, authenticity results from a process, and is not a quality one claims easily. Ths should set our expectation when it comes to ‘going deeper.’  And the great thinkers, saints and mystics agreed with this — St Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton and the Buddha, to name only three. What awaits us in our depths is not only our authentic self but also an encounter with authentic reality within which we exist. One cannot have an authentic self and a false view of the context in which we live. We must leave behind our false ideas about ourselves and reality, in other words, in order to experience ‘conversion.’ “For Lonergan, [authenticity] is absent in someone who is stubborn or driven by power, for this inner conviction is the fruit of conversion and it is the concrete principle of authentic self-transcendence.” [1]

What is this process of ‘conversion’ which leads to authenticity? “Authentic human existence is, in Lonergan’s terminology, the result of a long-sustained exercise of being attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible, and loving.” [2] Conversion and therefore authenticity arises from five human acts:

  • Attentive — Not only being aware but paying attention to and reflecting on what presents itself to us
  • Intelligent — Applying what we have learned, in an open-minded way, to what we become aware of, to encounter what we do not yet know — ‘hitherto unnoticed or unrealized possibilities’ according to Lonergan [3]
  • Reasonable — Using criteria to discern what is true in what we learn, crtieria that goes beyond simple self-referential or self-serving ideas about truth
  • Responsible — Making choices and taking action based on what we conclude is reasonably true
  • Loving — Applying an overriding criteria of love to every choice and action to ensure that it is ultimately responsible

If we conscientiously follow this process — and that may require a very long time, even a lifetime — we may find that we have been transformed. “What will transform us [and the world] is an ability to love the world, ourselves [and God], to see it as good in spite of the wrong. To fall in love is to set up a new principle that has, indeed, its causes, conditions, occasions, but, as long as it lasts, provides the mainspring of one’s desire and fear, hope and despair, joy and sorrow.” [4] This is obviously a much deeper definition of authenticity than one commonly encounters, one that includes the notion of personal and even cosmic transformation. Can ordinary people engaged in the complexity of living in the 21st century actually engage in such a process?

Practical authenticity and transformation

I’m inclined to simply answer this question ‘yes’ and leave it there. After all, people decide to do extraordinarily difficult things, like climb Mount Everest or sail around the world alone. But, unfortunately, in the modern world the pursuit of the deepest levels of authenticity and transformation are even more difficult than such feats. We can get ourselves into physical shape to approach Everest or the Pacific Ocean and people around us support us and applaud our success (or even our failure if we give it a good try). In years gone by, people who wanted to follow the interior path I described withdrew from the world and become monks, hermits or contemplatives. Only a few ‘heros’ managed to do this, like the ones I mentioned before. Now, however, it seems to me that many are being called to follow this path. Ordinary, middle-class men and women, who stay in the world yet, in a way, are called to leave the world. There is a great hunger for authenticity today; you can see it in books like “Eat, Pray, Love” and others.

So, practically speaking, what do you do if you sense this call to undertake the deeper journey of authenticity and transformation? Like any change process, there are steps. Here are three simple starting steps to prepare yourself to engage in this process:

  1. Clarify your intent — This involves being open to the future and the reality of your current situation –telling yourself why you must seek something different, what will happen if you don’t and what you hope to encounter if you do engage in the process. Your intent provides the motivation to make the long, arduous journey
  2. Plan your journey — Probably you can only see a short way ahead; that is what you must focus on. Read about others who have made this journey, and how they started. Then select some things to do and begin the journey. Stay open to what happens and be prepared to adjust your plan.
  3. Seek a support community — For ordinary people who stay in the world, having people to support and guide you through the process is critical. “No man is an island” applies very strongly to ‘middle-class’ adventurers. Only in conversations with people you trust will you be able to learn to be ‘attentive, intelligent, reasonable, responsible and loving.’

I would like to have a conversation with anyone who wants to learn more about the journey toward deeper authenticity and transformation.

[1] Braman, Brian J. (2012-05-23). Meaning and Authenticity: Bernard Lonergan and Charles Taylor on the Drama of Authentic Human Existence (Lonergan Studies) (Kindle Locations 2237-2239). University of Toronto Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Braman, Ibid

[3] Braman, Ibid

[4] Braman, Ibid