Authenticity and “The Better Self”

Have you ever had a moment when you knew you were being the best “self” you could be?   How about the opposite, when you knew you were somehow presenting to those around you, in that particular moment, the worst of your “self”?

Authenticity.  Being “authentic” is not just the craze; it’s the litmus test we have to pass.  Is there a worse criticism to lob at someone than “you’re not being authentic?”  Kierkegaard declared “To will to be himself is man’s true vocation.”  One of the greatest praises you can receive is for someone to declare that “you are the same everywhere you go.”

I want to point out a tension in this thinking and ask a couple of simple questions.

Just how does the face we present to the world arrive?  Does it arrive by natural organic process, so that if we simply “stay out of the way,” our “authentic” self will arise?  Or is the self determined by choices we make regarding our state(s) of being as we move from moment-to-moment?   If I feel lousy, is it more authentic to cave in to the lousy, presenting my lousy-feeling-self to everyone who comes along?    In the authentic self, does negative-feeling-state beget negative attitude and negative action while positive-feeling-state begets positive attitude and action?

It’s pretty easy to recognize there’s something wrong with that idea.

Is it an inauthentic move to give the world your “better self” everyday, regardless of how you feel?  When our state of being is under siege, and our feeling-state is primarily negative (pick your word–depression, stress, upset, down), is it inauthentic to take action in the opposite direction, and say…smile?  What is the difference between the struggling Sunday worshipper who “puts on a mask” and offers his friends an “inauthentic” version of himself, and the struggling worshipper who strains under the weight of his difficulty to offer those around him his “best” or “better” self?

“Be the best you can be” is a cliche and a joke in our age of authenticity.   We mock such platitudes…and then spend lots of money on books to tell us how to be just that–the best of who we are physically, emotionally, professionally, and spiritually.  And authenticity, of course, is assumed to be part of what being our better self requires.

Each of us knows a bothersome little secret: there are moments when for whatever reason, the best of who God made us to be, arises.  Arrives.  And we also know that there are moments when we are quite clear that we have just seen the worst of ourselves.   Life is mostly lived somewhere in between.   But being “authentic” cannot mean that we are at the whim of emotion’s winds.   Whatever it means, being authentic must mean living in the struggle between illusory selves and true selves, selfish selves and loving selves, lying selves and honest selves.

The simple question is this: have we determined to give our best or better selves to the world today?   (Since you’re asking how, I refer you to Peter Block’s The Answer to How is Yes.)

And if I don’t feel like being my best self today, is it inauthentic to bring my best self anyway?  Or do I choose not to because it’s just really hard?

And what makes me think “Resistance” (Pressfield, The War of Art) will be overcome by anything less than the best of what God is doing in me?

There are issues in these questions, I know.  But while we debate them, is it too much to ask that we bring our best or better selves to the debate?  And to the work of the day?

What happens to a day when, by God’s grace,  we bring our best selves to bear?

Let’s go find out…

28 Comments

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  1. Wow, Jeff! Excellent thoughts. I wished I had come up with this blog! But I’ll do the best thing: I’ll pass yours around to everyone I know.

    I think this is a real problem. Sometimes authenticity becomes an excuse to be lazy or obnoxious when I feel like it. “That’s just the way I am, take it or leave it” is a convenient excuse when I prefer to be undisciplined or rude or irritable or negative (or whatever state you wish to add).

    Again, thanks for a great post.

  2. So true, Darryl. Thanks for spreading the word.

    But then again, I was just listening to a radio station that purports to be “warm.” And the voices talking to me smack of something really inauthentic as they sell me their “warm-voiced” feel-goodism. So inauthenticity is real enough.

    Maybe it has to do with the long term shape of character. Sometimes steps that feel inauthentic are the beginning of a process of character and heart re-shaping that one day will feel very organic and real. What if today’s effort at better living feels really inauthentic, but is actually an authentic means by which to come to your better self?

    It’s all a process, right?

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Peace,

    Jeff

    • Perhaps authenticity has to do with the motivation behind our choices? Am I choosing a certain behavior, say a more positive demeanor, because I want to bring the best of myself to the world, or I am I doing it because I want other people to like me, because I’m afraid of the negative judgements of others, or because I know it’s the best way to sell my radio station? Maybe it’s the why not the how. I don’t know. I struggle with this all the time.

      • Julie,

        Thanks for stopping by and commenting. The hard thing about motive is that any given moment or choice is not made up of just one motive. And they tend to shift moment to moment. Lightning fast adjustments going on as we receive messages from “the other.”

        Which does the other more good–a poorly motivated positive demeanor (which I’m not suggesting is the equivalent of our “better self”) or a well-motivated negative demeanor? Well, it depends. But I would bet, that if we get still, and listen to our conscience, we know a great deal about what our “better self” entails. The point is that it takes effort to bring that to the table, and often we just don’t feel like doing it.
        But when we make the effort, the whole world changes.

        Peace,

        Jeff

  3. Excellent points all around Jeff. Yes, I agree there is such of a critter called “in-authenticity”. I do think Julie has a point regarding motivation, too.

    But your final point to Julie, “getting still” may be the key to it all. I have worked with enough people to know that many people are afraid of getting still and alone with themselves. Don’t always know the reasons, but there seems to be a tangible fear there. Perhaps it is something like Powell’s book Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? and the answer to that question is “Because you may not like who I am and who I am is all that I have.” Now, apply that to the person who is afraid to be still–“What if I discover my authentic self and I don’t like what I see?”

    But we need to enter the stillness, to look at ourselves, to discover who we have made ourselves to become–and to see what we can become. I hold to the view that we do create ourselves by how we respond to exterior surroundings, events, and relationships. Yes, we experience events that help shape us (especially as children), but eventually we choose our responses and that makes us who we are.

  4. Jeff, I have actually been told that I am the same person every where I go, that I am a very “authentic” person. I do take this as an enormous compliment and find it a little difficult to believe about myself. So I asked the most recent person to pay me this compliment to explain why they felt that way. They said that it is because who I am, my faith, perspectives, and actions, do not change regardless of the group I am with. I am the same person at church as I am at school as I am at a rock concert. It has nothing to do with my emotional state, whether I am tired or angry or sad, but more to do with the character of my soul and heart shining through regardless of the circumstance. I fully admit that I have nothing to do with this, God has giving me whatever ability I have to be authentic.

    • I’m so glad you posted this Jenny. Thanks. And let me join those who think of you as an authentic person. I concur.

      That said, here are a few questions I’m curious about. (You knew they were coming, didn’t you?)

      1) Do you relate to what I suggested in the post about knowing moments when we are bringing our “better self” to bear? Do you have a self-perceived “better self” that you try to live out?

      2) Do you think “authenticity” transcends the whole notion of the “better self” so that “be the best you can be” is sort of a nonsense statement? (as in, of course you’re going to be the best you can be…it’s just that some days will be worse than others, and some days will be better) and

      3) the statement “I have nothing to do with this” I understand to be a place of humility, but strictly speaking, (and being the scientist you are, I’m sure you can appreciate where I’m coming from), the Bible speaks to us as if we have very much to do with it. To choose is a singularly human action, and seems to determine so much. It’s never made sense to me to then turn around and say “I had nothing to do with the choosing.” We are actually held responsible for the choosing. We’re not going to be able to say to God, “I had nothing to do with it.” Of course, we know God to give us all our gifts and the ability to use them. In fact, we believe all of reality comes from him. So what’s my question? I don’t know…it just seems to say “we have nothing to do with it” is to negate most conversations revolving around our need to actually bring our wills to bear on life and decisions and action. Perhaps what we mean when we say “I had nothing to do with it” is more along the lines of “I’m thankful that God helped me live as I needed to.”

      By the way, I’m just talking here, with a smile on my face. 🙂 No confrontational critique is intended.

      Thanks for taking the time to reply. I’m enjoying all this conversing. Should be writing the play though. Back to it.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  5. So, I’m not sure I really understand what you’re getting at. Are you saying that the way to become more authentic is to get up every morning and say, “Okay, I’m going to be authentic today how should I behave?” Are you saying that in every little daily decision, every moment that comes along you have to evaluate your choices, figure out what the more authentic choice is, and then make it?
    There was a man I spoke with at my church once, who posited that the most important work God is doing within us, and that we as Christians are participating, is to help us become more and more who God intended us to be when we were created. God is working in us, teaching us how to be true to our unique an original design. This is a life-long process and each individual encounters different obstacles in their process. His explanation was quite eloquent and I am mangling it horrible because I, like you, am supposed to be doing something else. His explanation was built around the term “autopoesis”. I hope to reacquaint myself with this term after my anatomy final, so that I can explain this idea better.
    Anyhow, this is more what I think of when I think of authenticity. Authenticity comes out of deeper work going on within us. We can’t fake authenticity by saying, “Ok, what would an authentic person do in this moment?” or “If I were the best person I could be right now, what would I do?” Isn’t that contrary to the whole idea of authenticity? The people I know who are truly authentic, don’t really try to be authentic, they just are.

    This isn’t to say that our moment to moment choices aren’t important or that we should act of whatever emotion we are feeling at the moment. I just feel that these choices aren’t at the root at what it means to be authentic.

    • Hey, Julie,

      Boy, I can count on you. Thanks for taking a minute to post something.

      I agree that authenticity finds its home and its root in a deep ongoing work of God in our mysterious hearts, much of which goes unseen and unfelt, and cannot be accessed directly. Maybe a sort of garden bed that we are being planted in? And…there is an ongoing consciousness about the self that presents us with choices about how we go about doing what we’re doing. I think the goal is what you’re suggesting: authentic people hardly know what the conversation is because they’re too busy being authentic. They just are.

      But even their “are-ness” is on a journey. I think we value (and talk about) authenticity so much because as a culture, we are so cynical about the falseness of what we see and experience. We are desperate to see something true and real, something unspun. And while the hidden work of God goes on in the deep places, on the membrane of interaction, we do have choices to make, intentionally leaning against that spinning in identity and action.

      Is it fake authenticity to ask, “What would the best of myself do in this moment? Okay, I’ll head in that direction?” (Knowing that I’m not going to get there or execute the ideal ). I don’t think intentionality is opposed to authenticity. Plants grow both organically and through pruning and careful nurturing. Art arises in the same way. Art (as I understand it) that is left to its organic self will not find the structures necessary to support the weight and power of it’s organic statement.

      So autopoesis I don’t know about. But God’s hidden work in us dances with the responsible work of sweating out character construction to the degree we’re built and gifted for. And miraculously, grace covers all.

      That last sentence is the most important. Maybe the only one we need.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  6. In a shameless bit of self promotion I’ll refer you to a story I told to Paulo Coehlo (he included it his blog–I’ll let you read it there: http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2011/05/05/10-sec-reading-a-hassidic-story/comment-page-1/#comments).

    It seems we have made a circle. What is authenticity?

    You will be yourself no matter what you choose to do, no? But will you be your better self? Or will you be self-ish?

    Is authenticity self-less or self-centered?

    I would think it is a matter of training. When you train yourself (in art or athletics or warfare) you do something over and again until it becomes second nature. When you constantly practice patience there will come a time when it becomes “second nature”. Are you less authentic when you are “practicing” than you are when it becomes second nature?

    As a person who drives a standard transmission, are you less authentic when you are learning and the clutch seems to have a thousand pounds of pressure on it and you have to think through every gear change than when you can do it unconsciously?
    Isn’t it interesting the NIV translators use the word “natural self” when referring to “the flesh”?

    • Darryl,

      Love this. I haven’t read the story yet, but I will. Love the very succinct ideas in training. Second nature authenticity vs. the practice of those attributes you hope to become authentic parts of your better self. Love that! Well said.

      Thanks for all the input today.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  7. Let me add this thought: I think Jesus had something to say in the gospel of Mark about someone taking up his cross, saying “no” to himself, and following him. He continues the one who tries to save his life will lose it and he (or she) who loses his/her life for the gospel will find it.

    This isn’t martyrdom in the basic sense of the word. It is self-denial and it is in self-denial we discover exactly who we are.

    Let me point out very quickly that my preaching is much better than my practice! So I’ll just echo with Paul, “I haven’t made it there yet…but I’m trying!” (Loose paraphrase of Philippians 3). 8^)

  8. May I just interject something here about how we respond to people who might not, in our estimation, be bringing their “best selves” to a situation? I may be off the mark, but I believe it’s important to revel in the uniqueness of the individual. What I may count as rude may be, if I give that person the benefit of the doubt, just an individual difference of expression. Being brought up in New England, I can tell you that how someone from the Northeast responds to a situation might be totally different than someone, say, from the South.

    Personally, I think the differences need to be celebrated. Who is to judge what is a person’s “best self” anyway? I like to think that Jesus reveled in the uniqueness of each of his disciples and their reactions to Him. He was pretty patient with Thomas, and I like to think that His compassion extended past Thomas’ doubt. Sometimes I think as Christians we try to squeeze everyone into a “happy place,” when in reality they don’t fit there. It’s OK. Not everyone’s happy looks the same.

    • Hey Stacy,

      Welcome to the conversation! Thanks for taking the time.

      One thing that I did not make clear (so thanks for pointing it out and holding me to it) is that the perspective I’m after is not the one that judges the other’s “better self” from the outside; I’m referring to the conversation we have with ourselves. (Actor’s POV, inside the mind, looking out.) So yes, there is no one “better self” that everybody replicates. Far, far from it. I’m with you…the differences are rife, unique, part of the essence of incarnation, and worthy of celebration. It’s really about the conversation going on with God in each one of us, and how we are listening, and the energy we are putting into the response of his nudging us from glory to glory. So we are in total agreement here. No one “happy” to get to.

      Thanks for clarifying.

      Peace,

      Jeff

      • Yes, I get that, but the “conversation we have with ourselves” is often tainted by reactions we get from others. At least that’s how my inner conversations go.

  9. love this entry and conversation, Jeff. I am currently having an on/off dialog with a younger guys at work about related stuff. May I suggest a different set of terms?
    REAL vs. FAKE. We ALL are who we are, in reality–true? Yet we sometimes resort to being fake. Unreal. Phony. Liars. We lie to ourselves sometimes. We believe a lie about ourselves. We live out a lie of our own making, because we are not CONTENT with WHO WE ARE–REALLY. And the better someone gets to know us, the more obvious it is when we are BEING real with OURSELVES, and when we are not.
    So, maybe it’s about who we come to believe we really ARE. And our contentment with the real me (apologies to The Who). I have done battle with this for years. and know you and I know many others who have. And the closer I have gotten to that state, the happier I have become. Not there yet, but one of my regular prayers is that God would purify my heart, change my attitude, and make me who He wants me to be. Really.

    • Hey Bruce,

      Real and fake. “We all are who we are, in reality–true?” Well, see I think it’s not quite that simple. But that’s just me, and you know me? (But do you know the real me?) We could have fun for a long time.

      But lack of contentment, as you point out, is huge. What if the contentment has to live with not really knowing how to articulate or grasp who the real me is? Or the fake me, for that matter. The Apostle Paul I think, has some things to say about having to train in knowing the difference between good and not so good. In our world today, there are lots of shadings.

      “Get wisdom, though it cost all you have.”

      I can get behind that prayer at the end of your comment, too.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  10. True Self. I am so confused about that phrase. I have been accused recently of not being my true self and my reactions was, “How do they know what my true self is? I feel like I’m one of the most truthful people I know. Why don’t they just take care of their true self and let me worry about being mine!” But it’s an interesting topic for Chrisitans, because jesus asks us to change/overcome our true feelings in order to live a saved life….Though I think somehow true self is about bearing fruit. Just keep “doing” and they’ll see You by your fruit, not just your smile. Thanks for the thoughts, Jeff ~ peace!

  11. Darryl,

    I agree with your thoughts about training. However, I’m not sure that authenticity is the product of getting up every day and practicing being authentic. I think it is more likely that authenticity is more likely a byproduct of other exercises like living and loving courageously and practicing compassion for oneself and others.

    My preaching is much better than my practice, as well. 🙂

    • Well put, Julie! I think we’re pretty much on the same page.

      It is the giving up of self where the authentic self is found: the self God intended us to be–paradoxically a self shaped by the character and mind of a different self, an other: Christ.

      I think Paul might say something about this in Galatians 2:20.

  12. Authenticity implies honesty, does it not? When I am honest with myself, when I feel “authentic”, it is not in the company of other people, for there is always an inherent and strained effort involved in being around other people, a conscious restraint on my innermost desires which is required in order to achieve peace and order and harmony with my fellow travelers. In truth, I’d rather be sitting in front of the television watching an old movie and stuffing my face with potato chips; instead, I politely place my napkin in my lap and ask my wife to pass the salad. My authenticity arises from the fact that I have made the conscious decision to sacrifice those selfish desires and put on my mask of civility in order to promote the general welfare of the corporate body, the family or group to which I belong. Does this authenticity have any meaning outside the context of social interaction? I wonder. Certainly I don’t worry about being “authentic” when by myself. Oftentimes, I feel at my most “honest” when driving down the highway, far from company or kin, with no one to impress or dismay, singing at the top of my lungs in random sequences of thought, a beat poet banging out his solitary verses, alternating between degenerate ranting and plaintive cries for mercy. If it were not for these moments of complete solitutude, any interaction with society — and the accompanying masks of “authenticity” — would be impossible. * Yet there is also a deep-seated desire for others to know the real me, the “authentic” me. So far, the only people in whom I have found acceptance of the real me – or as near as I’ll probably ever come to reveal – are my children, who have seen me both at my best and at my worst. And they are looking for me to show them how to be an authentic, real person. And I tentatively allow them glimpses of this version of me, and am constantly amazed at how loving and tolerant they are of this old man with the obvious faults; and it brings to mind the words of Jesus: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

    • Rob,

      Thank you so much for this beautiful take on the tensions of authenticity, honesty, and the self that only the kids get to see. Fabulous.

      Thanks again for stopping by,

      Peace,

      Jeff

  13. I just wanted to add…~ I think being completely truthful is relative, in that “humanity” we- are “not perfect and we lie even without realizing it sometimes”- type of way.

  14. “Is something wrong today? You are not acting like yourself.”

    Acting like yourself–this is what I pursue all too often–the “acting” like ourselves, or at least the self I want to put forward. It is quite the challenge to not act like anything, but to simply be who we are while we strive for a better true self.

    This hurts my head a little bit…

    • Thanks Mr. Hooper, for stopping by. Love the quote “You are not acting like yourself.” Gets at the whole discussion very succinctly. To forget oneself. That does seem to be the goal, doesn’t it?

      Hurts my head too.

      Peace,

      Jeff

  15. Jeff, the reason I enjoy reading your blogs is that you are always searching for truth, and the beautiful thing is that those who respond are also searching. None of us has arrived. God’s goal for us is that we be like Christ. The good news is that He makes it possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I won’t be fully what God intends me to be until I see him face to face. However, as I walk in His light and yield to His Spirit in full assurance of His love and mercy, I am free to acknowledge who I am: a sinner saved by grace. I no longer have to pretend to be anything else. I can count myself dead to my old sinful self because of the hope I have in Christ. I think both you and Jenny are right. The will to do God’s will has to come from me. The working out of God’s will is His doing through His Spirit. There are times when I know I fail to be authentic. I have given into fear instead of trusting in God. I also talk too much.

    • Thanks for reading, Neita. I don’t think you talk too much at all. We’re all growing here, as you say…thanks for encouraging us to keep trusting, knowing we won’t really find the whole thing out until we get home.

      peace,

      Jeff

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