On Being Authentic
Authenticity is about becoming real. It is a dangerous business, and it takes a lifetime. The alternative is a superficial life that is nothing more than an act for others. Authenticity, living out of the truth of who we are, is the greatest freedom. Phoniness is the most tragic and heinous form of slavery. Properly understood, Shakespeare’s maxim “to thine own self be true” is the most basic principle of morality.
The most accessible wisdom on authenticity was written by Margery Williams in her book The Velveteen Rabbit. The Skin Horse tells the Rabbit “It doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you become real most of your hair has been loved off, and you’re all eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all because once you become real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand. “ (Avon Books, 1975).
The Skin Horse is right, becoming real is a process, not an event. There are moments when our mind, heart, and emotions come together and meet God and we’re changed for life, but not even these peak experiences can make us totally real for good. We cannot force the process any more than we can orchestrate grace. We progressively say “yes” to love and life and “no” to the world, the flesh, in the ego. We must trust that life is out to do us good and Christ is giving us everything we need to become real at each moment. The price is everything, but it’s worth it. An authentic life is a beautiful life.
We have corrupted the meaning of many crucial words in our contemporary age. Authenticity is no exception. The word can be misused to enthrone our own pride and preferences. Being true to ourselves involves dying to our false selves. Authenticity is love and fidelity. Struggling to keep a love alive and “acting as if” in order to grow in virtue is authentic.
St. Paul is a great example of authenticity. First, Paul was humiliated, knocked off his high horse. That must happen to us as often as it takes to help us inner into the heart of our humility. He sensed his own nothingness apart from God in came to know God’s mercy intimately. He did not become nothing, but received his true identity from God’s hands. All of us move into humility, and then to identity in route to authenticity. After Damascus and the desert, Paul became more and more given to Christ, and therefore more and more real. Here are a few signs from Paul’s life which appear universally in authentic human beings:
1. Paul was passionate. He loved and hated intensely. Real people have a real emotions.
2. Paul had a great deal of freedom. For many of us, a positive in extrinsic evaluation from others is the chief motivating force in our lives. The drug of approval is given to us from infancy, and only grace can break that addiction. Paul was magnificently unconcerned about what others thought. He both cared and did not care. He simply trusted Christ, regardless of opinions or circumstances.
3. Paul found the balance between self-love, self-hate, and self-forgiveness. A certain kind of self-hate and despair can be good for us. We may hate what is phony or specious in us and we may despair of ourselves at times, but this must lead us to what is real and to genuine hope if we are to become our authentic selves.
Br. Thomas Crutcher