“Authenticity” and the idea of living an “authentic life” have become buzzwords, and like most buzzwords, the fundamental question becomes: what does it mean?
What makes a life “authentic” or “real”? It’s a question that seems to vex professional thinkers and the rest of us a like.
Personally, I always thought of the concept as a combination of doing what you believe is best for you with a rootedness in timeless values. But the first part is what I’ve found the trickiest to define:
- Is “doing what you want” inherently selfish?
- If so, how can you mitigate this?
- What’s the balance between “authenticity” and “obligation”?
- Isn’t it strange that the idea of “authenticity” itself is often packaged and sold as a commodity?
- “Authentic” to whom?
And then I got thinking about how we can sometimes define things by their absence or negation. Let me explain:
As stated in my introduction to guest posts, I’d like to offer my take on what Avtomat Khan of The Hidden Dominion covered in his guest post, “Staying Authentic in Trying Times.” In it is a passage and a diagram I really like:
Consider this: If you place a high value on what others think of you, it will manipulate your personality and conclusions, either to find approval or avoid disapproval.
How can someone claim to be genuine if their values are so easily distorted based on who’s listening? It masks your true self. And in turn, it promotes the idea that we should “hide” who we actually are, in favor of whatever the latest bandwagon is.
That’s a good diagram, right?
So more on negation: Sometimes we get a feeling that things are not right, a sense that how we are living is misaligned with who we are. It’s difficult to articulate this, but you know it when it’s not there.
So I can say from personal experience that I may not know exactly what an authentic life would look or feel like to me, but I do know what it’s not, because I am not living one.
Existence by absence. Not the strongest method of proof, but there you go.
I, like I suspect many aimless men of my generation, lived what could be called a “check the box” kind of life: School, college, sensible degree, graduate school, job, house, and so on.
“Everything will work out,” we were promised. “Take the surest, safest path to prosperity,” we were told by well-meaning advice-givers.
The thing is, when you check all of the boxes, you end up living in a box, having done everything just to please others, as Avtomat puts it. Through a combination of upbringing, temperament, and advice, this can prove stifling and the cause of much angst and misery.
A man is in large part what he does every day. And if you are dissatisfied with what you do every day, you are in for a certain level of beigeness.
So how do you recognize the absence of authenticity to hopefully take steps to change? At the risk of hypocrisy, here is a handy checklist:
- Are you always wondering about past “What ifs”?
- Are you constantly regretting and reexamining the decisions that led you to where you are now?’
- Are you constantly seeking distractions–digital, chemical, or otherwise–from what you do?
- Are there no passions or hobbies to scratch your outstanding itches, or do you now have little to no interest in things you used to live?
These are just some signs of the absence of authenticity.
So what to do?
Well, you can’t just quit life and start afresh. There are probably obligations and responsibilities you can’t just abandon.
But the best thing to do is start now trying to do things that align with your own values going forward.
You can’t change your past, but you can learn from it. A lot of it, though, depends on your tolerance for ruffling feathers.
It’s a human trait that people want you do do well…if it’s how they think you should do it. It’s weird, but that’s life. So start learning to ignore them.
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