“Being authentic” is one of the key attributes of leading a good life in the postmodern mind. As our confidence in traditional beliefs and institutions has weakened, we have come to rely more and more on our own core strengths. One of these is our “integrity” or our “authenticity.” The opposites of “authenticity” — being a “phony” or “wishy-washy” — are easy to imagine. But what does being authentic mean in practice?
We all experience “being human.” We can easily recognise three parts of ourselves in daily living:
- Our normal feeling, thinking and behaving self, that does practically all our living, mostly automatically, “on autopilot.”
- A critical self, that watches our normal self and tells us what we ought to be doing, why we aren’t living up to its expectations, etc.
- A third self, the detached observer, who watches both these other selves, recognises their characteristics and wonders about “what all this means” and other questions.
What does “being authentic” mean?
Given that each person has these three selves, how do we live “authentically?” Here are several things living authentically doesn’t mean:
- It doesn’t mean living only ‘on autopilot.’ It doesn’t mean “If it feels good, do it.” Our normal self is shaped by many things out of its control — where and when you were born, your family, etc — and makes choices based on these circumstances, without a full view of the consequences. Learning by experience is what our normal self does, sometimes to its regret.
- It doesn’t mean doing what someone else tells you to do, especially your own critical self. While that self might possibly include recommendations from a well-developed conscience that we ought to listen to, many times it is simply inappropriate memories and limiting decisions that chatter away and distract us.
- It doesn’t mean living in a detached state, observing life but not actually participating. Our detached observer could spend all its time mulling over questions while the normal self stays on “autopilot,” barely aware of other people or day to day life and the critical self as it chatters away.
To me, living authentically means being able to balance all three of these selves and participate in life according to some higher level of meaning and purpose. Living authetically implies that our detached observer becomes an involved and committed self, which counsels the normal and critical selves according to its understanding of my higher purpose. [You can see an example of how this involved and committed self might emerge in Steps 2 and 3 of the AA’s Twelve Step Program.]
The only authentic question we can ask
To a Christian, being authentic must mean that I live according to Jesus’ guidance for the meaning and purpose of my life. But, many times, this leads to more questions. What is Jesus’ guidance in my precise situation? Where do I find this guidance — in the Bible (which passage?), from the church (who?), from prayer (How do I recognise Jesus’ voice?), etc. We may want to develop our involved and committed self so that we can guide our normal and critical selves “authentically” but we get stuck in all these questions. Many times, I lapse back to detaching again and letting life go on as it always has, defending this choice with, “Oh, I’m a good person” or “I’ll rely on God’s mercy to sort all this out at the end.” While I forgive myself and keep on trying, being detached is certainly a cop-out and not living authentically.
These is only one authentic question that our involved and committed self can ask, to find the way forward. “Where is God right now in this situation?” If we truly strive to answer that question, then Jesus’ guidance (and grace) will surely find us in our need. Of course, it’s not like picking up a phone, calling the God number, and getting an instant answer by SMS. It is like a conversation with a close friend. You know the mind of a close friend, even when they aren’t there. By telling her or him the story of your situation, you are pretty certain about what they are going to tell you when you meet them face to face. Sometimes, you talk to other friends and tell them what your close friend told you, to get confirmation. This is a metaphor for prayer and Christian community.
A Christian’s involved and committed self is formed in prayer and in conversations with other Christians about our life. Forming this crucial authentic part of ourselves so we (and the community) can achieve God’s purpose for us is one of the primary purposes of a local church. If this is happening already in your life, you are fortunate to know how to pray and you are in a genunine Christian community. If that isn’t the case, perhaps you are being called to be a Change Agent in your own prayer and in your church.