Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Authenticity: It's Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

In the current digital age, in which people take on multiple personas depending upon whom they are interacting with on-line, there has recently been an attempt to market authenticity as the virtue of the moment (see “Authentic: Get Real”). Celebrities as diverse as Michele Bachman, Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Ophra, and even Pope Benedict XVI have been touting the importance of presenting an image of the authentic self—our true inner selves as opposed to the fictitious ones that we often create for ourselves.

While I think that it is charming that an existential concept like authenticity is finding its way into mainstream culture, I wonder whether this recent need to be—or at least appear—authentic is all that desirable or even possible.

I’ve spent the past 25 years searching for my own authentic self in vain. Instead what I’ve discovered is that there are numerous “Mikes” that rise and fall depending upon the specific situations in which I find myself and the specific people with whom I am interacting. The discovery that there is no real me in me was at first a dispiriting proposition, especially for the younger me who was really, really into me and believed that the me I thought was me was truly the authentic me (Whew! That was a tough one to get out!).

In recent years, however, my study of Buddhism has shown me that the quest for a real or authentic self is something of a delusion. The Buddha’s central insight was that there actually is no abiding Self that exists throughout time and space at the core of the human being. Instead, what we have are thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are experienced in the moment but which don’t actually belong to any permanent or enduring Self.

My youthful quest to discover my “authentic self’ has given way, therefore, to a greater appreciation for what I would call “existential fluidity.” I came upon this concept from my six-year study of one of my personal heroes, Mr. Bob Dylan. During his 50-year career as a musician, Dylan has transformed himself so many times that it was often difficult to keep track of all his assorted mutations. There was Dylan the folk singer, Dylan the social activist, Dylan the leader of the Counter-Culture, Dylan the country singer, Dylan the family man, Dylan the evangelical, Dylan the painter, and so on. There was never any one Bob Dylan, which is probably what the recent film about him was so aptly called “I’m Not There.” Instead what you have with Dylan was a man who prided himself on his ability to evolve with time and circumstances, who tried on numerous personas to see how they fit, and to who kept challenging himself to grow as an artist and a human being through his long life. He’s still going strong at 70 and his music now is as intriguing as it was when he was 21, even if it is completely different from any sort of music he created before.

Existential fluidity. It means I don’t have to be concerned at all about “finding my authentic self,” because I recognize that I am a being in flux at all times, always evolving, always growing, and, hopefully, always maturing. I can try to resist this change by obsessing about “the real me” and being miserable as a result, or I can embrace it and allow myself to gracefully flow along with the world around me.

Existential fluidity is a liberating concept because it also means that I can’t ever be pegged by other people as this or that kind of person. When someone says to me, “Mike, you are so _______” (fill in the blank), I can respond: “I don’t know who you’re talking about. That may be the picture of me that you’ve created in your own mind, but it sure as hell ain’t me.” And no one, then, can fit you into his or her petty, constricted little boxes.

Existential fluidity also means that I don’t have to feel guilty for trying new things, taking on new projects, or embracing new experiences (however unconventional they might appear to others), because this is precisely what a being in flux does. If I’m accused of being a dabbler, or lacking serious focus, I can simply say, “Amen!” So I dabble, and in dabbling discover amazing new dimensions to my ever-evolving being. In my dabbling I become reborn, renewed, and reimagined. I can be a philosopher, a poet, a high priest, revolutionary, saint, a manic doer of deeds, or a deliciously lethargic slug. I can be all these things at different times or all these things at once...and ALL of them are the real me without being really me at all.

So let the Oprahs and Katies of the world waste their time trying to be authentic. I’d prefer to spend the little time I have left embracing my utter and complete lack of any sort authenticity…and live a much richer life as a result.

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