Inauthentic Me?

I recently had a great conversation with a young leader in our denomination. This person asked the right question: “Do you feel like you can’t be you since you work with the whole denomination?”

It is the question of a generation.

Authenticity is a big deal today. Are you being true to yourself? Are you being who you say you are, or are you morphing into someone everyone else what you to be? And for many today, inauthenticity is the 8th deadly sin.

To be honest, I am not one to champion authenticity. I might cry foul when someone is politicking me or putting up a front, but I don’t think that being authentic is the remedy. I just don’t think we should start making Authenticity, with a capital A, the newest Cardinal Virtue.

Simply put, sometimes the “me” I want to be isn’t the best me. Or to phrase it another way, there a lot of times I rely on a simple motto: The first thing I thought, not the first thing I said.

See, I can get angry. My frustrations often get the better of me and my repines is not the best side of my personality.

I can jump to judgements without hearing the whole story, or taking the time to understand what is going on.

In a personality survey, I test low in “Rule Consciousness.” Basically, when rules make sense to me, I follow them as best I can. When they seem superfluous or overly legalistic, I tend to work from “Ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

And quite frankly, I am naturally anxious. I get nervous about how I come across. I worry as the expectations mount, and fear failure above most everything else. The end result is that I can easily become paralyzed in my anxiety and fear. The easiest route for me is not to try, or to hide away and avoid the possibility of failure.

If I am being me, then these things come out. And sometimes, the post-modern desire for authenticity says that these come without apologies. I am who I am, and I should be me in any circumstance.

In Christian spirituality this often is categorized under “Being who God created me to be.” Or at least that is the excuse. God has made me an angry, judgmental, expedient, and anxious person. Yet, when I live there, I am not the person I most want to be. In old fashioned churchy language, I sin. I hurt others. I hide rather than witness to God’s work. And I don’t enter the doors God has called through.

Think of Moses as he hears God’s call to return to Egypt as a liberator. “God, I can’t do that … that just isn’t me.” Yet, in the presence of God’s call the true self emerges. Its funny as we read through Moses’ journey from the Sinai to Egypt he makes all the speeches. His “press secretary” Aaron, the one God appointed as Moses’ companion, doesn’t say much. The stuttering shepherd became the eloquent leader.

Our emphasis on Authenticity today has ignored the reality that we each have two selves. There is the me I project and try to maintain, what Thomas Merton often called “the false self.” In the transforming grace of Christ, however, we each discover our “true selves.” We come to know our faults, and yet live into the gifts God has given us for mission.

Unfortunately, I don’t live as my true self all the time. Occasionally the true me surfaces and good things happen, but more often than not I look back and see the parts of me that cause hurt or paralysis. To be sure, the false self can be the one that others try to force onto me. The graced me, the Josh God is helping me to become, fights that projection just as much as the one I create. Yet, authenticity doesn’t get at the True Self. It does not ask me which self I am being true to- the false one, or the one God is leading me towards.

In the light of Christ my aim is to be my True Self, the one I am called to be, not necessarily the one I am.

The better antidote to the vice of inauthenticity is better understood as humility. I am Josh, the some times angry, some times anxious and judgmental. I am the Josh who tries and stumbles and tries again. I am the Josh who has some ideas, but not all the answers. And I am the Josh that needs others to help me see the whole picture. Humility as a virtue says to all those around us that we are who we are, but we are striving towards the “me I want to be.” Humility asks those around us to join that same journey, simply because we are more ourselves when we are with others.

Some might throw up warnings that too much emphasis on “me with others” leads to stifling of my true self. Yet, I think that Rowan Williams says it best in his book Tokens of Trust: “Our peace is what it is because it is a flow of unbroken activity, the constant maintenance of relation and growth as we give into each others’ lives and receive from each other, so that we advance in trust and confidence.” (105).

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Inauthentic Me?

  1. Scott Holland

    Good general answer, Josh, to a question often asked by young adults in this highly politicized and polarized denomination of the Church of the Brethren. As Walt Whitman reminds us, “We contain multitudes.”

    However, some young adults are pressing this question to a deeper level. They are asking if they have in fact been attentive to spiritual formation and to divine guidance, can they authentically present that self, that voice, that face, that persona, that man or woman to the churchly community without engaging in the calculated institutional linguistics of political God-talk?

    This, it seems to me as I converse with young adults, is the pressing question around authenticity and the desire to be spiritually alive and awake if religiously disengaged from ageing denominational structures.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Scott,

      First, I think this may not be a deeper level but another facet or dynamic of the authenticity conversation. I was not writing to dig deeper, but to offer another look at the question. At some point we simply have to respond to the statement ‘To thine own self be true” with a simple question- Which self?

      Second, I agree that the politicized culture of denominations is part of the problem. I am not trying to side step that reality or think naively about it. To be sure, the False Self is one which can be either imposed from outside, or constructed internally to please others. Both, however, are false.

      The problem is the sweeping individualistic claim that some how I am ME apart from others. Of course this means that there is a fine line between discovering my True Self with others and being someone else for others. There is a strain in post-modern emphasis on authenticity that says “I am who I am am, damn the rest”. It is, in part, an antagonistic posture to community. What I am offering here is a different starting point. Rather than saying “they are forcing this on me” there is an important tole for what the monks called discretio- or discretion. Instead of starting with the external, this posture begins within. Which self is this asking me to live out of? The discover may just be that what is being revealed is an oppressive imposition of a False Self, and thus should be rejected. On the other hand, it may just be an invitation to live out of our True or better Self.

      There is a key element here that neither of us have mentioned. For many young adults, this is a conversation about “finding my voice.” In other language it is about finding the ego strength to speak boldly and yet humbly. Bold in that the person can speak from experience and understanding without fear and humbly enough to say that my experience or understanding may not be the complete truth.

      • Scott Holland

        This is good, Josh, listening to one’s life in conversation with others to discern the inauthentic False Self in contrast to True or Better Self. The theopoetic critique of theology proper is that too often faithful theologians have no inner life.

        On the imposition of a False Self, this week’s issue of “The Guardian” has a story about my old professor Hans Kung. He is leading a growing movement in Europe to unseat the pope and it has much to do with the freedom of the believer to honestly and authentically find one’s own voice in conversation with texts, traditions and human experiences that authoritarian patriarchs seek to manage and control.

  2. Thanks for this, Josh. Our congregational book group discussed Parker Palmer’s Promise of Paradox this week, and spent most of our time talking about the paradox of individuality+community. The question that has kept me thinking was: “How do you name something as a paradox when one of the poles has been largely neglected?” In this culture, authentic individuality reigns so supreme that we rarely even get intimations of how communities shape who we are. There’s paradox there, which I think is what makes this question of authenticity and identity so hard to answer, but it takes acknowledgement of community’s formative influence to even get to the possibility of paradox.

    I guess what I’m trying to connect is this idea of bald authenticity is an idea that comes from being an unbalanced scale on what is actually an equal and opposite arrangement of paradox. Instead of insisting on “finding” ourselves before we engage in community, we might be better off to cede to the acknowledgement that we’re already engaged in and being formed by community…

    • Scott Holland

      Dana, Yes, if we ever found that insufferable “inner child” she or he would be mute if she or he only dwelt in solitary psychic or spiritual space. This dance of the individual and the community is classic. Many years ago I was invited to address this issue for the Association for Religion and Intellectual Life. My address, “So Many Good Voices in My Head,” was first published in Soundings in 1996 (the journal for Values in Higher Education) and then presented as a lecture at several schools, including Brown, and republished in various venues. This piece on the individual and the community landed me an editor’s job at CrossCurrents Journal where I still serve as a contributing editor. i no longer have the article in a digital file after a few computer crashes over the years but I believe if you Google it, it will show up on your screen because some said I mastered the paradox and solved the dilemma way back in 1996. Ha! Right.

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