Authenticity and our three ‘Selves’

“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.


Practical versus theoretical religion

Michael Fallon in his book Change Leaders made a profound point that Christians must understand to follow Jesus’ leadership. “Day to day practice is the only experience that can engage and reshape the brain.” This raises a number of questions which, when answered, can expand our sense of what salvation and our church are all about.
1. What are we humans and what role does our brain play in our life? Secular thinkers would say that our brain is all there is — Christians believe that we have an immortal soul. Still, we do have a brain because we are “enfleshed spirits” not angels. So what is the relationship between our brain and our soul, our flesh and our spirit? They must be taken together and our lifelong learning consists in developing that integration. It’s not “mind over matter” but the harmony between our different aspects that ought to shape our lives.
2. What is Jesus’ role in achieving this harmony? Jesus shows us how, in practical ways, to balance our flesh and spirit. God is not a spirit, some sort of super-angel or mighty spiritual being. God became an enfleshed spirit, Jesus, to communicate his “life” to us and, in fact has done that through Jesus becoming one of us. We are adopted sons and daughters because of this but that doesn’t mean that we are fully constructed and complete at the time of our birth. Learning what we are and what it means to be God’s adopted child is a life-long learning task for every person. The great challenge (and mystery) of human life is becoming conscious of the fact that, in freedom, we are creating who we are as God’s child. Learning how to achieve harmony between our brain and our spirit is the core of this learning process.
3. What is the role of religion and church in our becoming conscious that, as God’s adopted child, creating harmony between the two sides of our nature, our flesh and our spirit, is the practical way we create our eternal soul? Basically we learn by doing what others are doing, by imitating. The community of believers learn from each other how to imitate Jesus. This is not a theoretical task but a highly practical one. The difficulty is discerning which behaviors and actions we want to imitate because everyone in a church community is an “amateur” at being a child of God. No one does it right all the time, even so-called saints. This is why Jesus’ primary teachings were about love of neighbor, forgiveness and humility. This is also why everyone must be part of a community of believing teachers / learners.