Authenticity has never been a peaceful ideal. Since the times of Romanticism, it has been discussed whether being true to oneself means surrendering to an overflowing spontaneity, or whether this imperative has more to do with the patient forging of character. In the current context, which is very sentimental, it seems that the first version triumphs. How to balance things?
The “be yourself” advice is so versatile that it works for both an Instagram post and an article in the New York Times; so much for one beer ad how much for one video clip against alcohol consumption among teenagers…
From the video clip, the audacity with which the rapper Rayden converts a slogan beaten in an invitation to take the reins of his own life; to learn to wait; not to give in to blackmail…
my frienddo not want to run, be in a hurry to grow.
Soon you will be of age and you will know what it is to mature.
In life there is more than one train; wait for yours, boy,
and you can be special. (…)
Let no one impose your options on you.
Let no one come to strip you of your flame.
This song is a good example of how you can reframe in healthier terms a valuable ideal that is often gets decaf. This is what authenticity needs today: a reassertion that gives it back its subversive power. I propose three ideas to achieve this:
1. Listen to your heart, but really
Popular culture has come to identify the advice “be yourself” with the maxim “listen to your heart”, understood in a very epidermal way: here the heart does not refer to the center of the person, but to an affectivity disconnected from reason and will. .
Paradoxically, the same society that invites us to discover the originality that defines us, impels us to live facing out, far from ourselves. It is the “inner crumbling” that philosopher Gustave Thibon spoke of, and which today is accentuated by the dispersion brought about by digital media.
It is true that one’s own identity is always built in dialogue with others, but how do we assert ourselves if we spend so much time exposing our intimacy to the outside, without having reflected on it before? The phenomenon is known as “extimacy” and, in the first place, it is leaving us more exposed to the possibility of others telling us who we are.
Faced with the fragmentation provided by the accelerated pace of current life, as well as the lack of stable references of postmodern society, Txemi Santamaría invites, in his book interiority (San Pablo, 2020), to “develop a culture of silence, of pause, of listening” to oneself, which facilitates the “turn inward”, the return to that intimate home that is our interior. Santamaría calls it “a space that integrates the human being”, because it is there that everyone can stop, become aware and interpret everything that comes to us from outside.
This recollection enables us to discover the meaning of what we live. It allows us to provide ourselves with a unifying story, a narration that gives coherence amidst stimuli, noise, inertia… If the multitasking life and the jump from screen to screen disperse us, interiority – explains Santamaría – opens horizons and brings depth to life itself. In this way, the heart – as this interior space is also often called metaphorically – becomes a source of meaning.
As you can see, “listening to the heart” is something more serious than going after any feeling. The immersion process that Santamaría describes involves active listening to bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts…, but then there is a re-elaboration that gives depth. Interiority allows us to leave the realm of inertia and be ourselves: “It helps us to identify our moments of automatic pilot. And it leads us to another way of being, of being and of doing. A way in which we begin to be masters of our actions, of the answers that we give in every moment of our lives”.
2. Think for yourself
The cult of authenticity can generate quite inauthentic phenomena. An example is the industry that has sprung up around one of the requirements to enter some North American universities: personal writing, a text in which candidates are asked to define themselves frankly and openly. At this point in the championship, no student is naive enough to face this writing without some basic knowledge of what qualities are worth points.
Seen like this, like explain Joseph E. Davis, authenticity is no longer about showing who we are in the open, but about presenting ourselves to others in a way that I approve of. And this, in the context of these universities, includes some allusion to the “passion for diversity” or to the fact of having moved from a defective self to a better one. At the height of cynicism, there is even a university that publishes its own guideline for learning to write “an authentic essay.”
The phenomenon Davis points to has to do with a broader trend. There was a time when the most valued thing in intellectual fields was to show independence of thought. But today it seems more relevant to include adherence to the dominant mentality. The important thing is not to believe that we have ideas of our own, but that our worldview fits perfectly on the right side of history.
In this context, one of the things that can help young people most to be themselves is to recover the maxim with which Kant synthesized the spirit of the Enlightenment: “Saper aude! Dare to use your own understanding!” Or, in other words, dare to think freely. Don’t assimilate the ideas that others have, don’t repeat what everyone says. And for that, of course, train yourself, educate the your intelligence: read good books, reflect on your own, ask those who know more, draw your own conclusions, demand nuances, question current topics, look at reality, contrast, forge a valuable thinking style…
3. Be brave
Thinking independently places us before the world in a unique way. But there is still one step left to be authentic: to have the courage to express one’s convictions. And the same goes for feelings. It is possible to have good reasons to remain silent in concrete circumstances. However, those who habitually hide who they are lack authenticity.
Authentic people have a special appeal. Not so much because their way of being excites everyone, but because of the clarity they offer. With them, you can know what to stick to; they don’t lie, they don’t play hide and seek. What is seen is what there is: a real self with its virtues and defects; a “consistent and recognizable self”, as Pedro Pallares Yabur says about the heroines of Jane Austen’s novels. On the other hand, “all the antagonists in the Austenian accounts hide what they are behind an amiable face.”
It is true that open-mouthed spontaneity can falsify authenticity (and certainly charity), but the restraint that hides behind an amiability as correct as it is empty is not more sincere (nor more charitable). Jutta Burggraf suggested this in a interview in which he spoke of the need to be authentic: “You can tell that you are not loved, no matter how much they smile at you.”
As for the courage to show oneself as one is, it is interesting what Fernando Sarráis says in his book authentic (Palabra, 2022): “Fear is the main cause of lying and falsehood”. The reasons that activate this emotion are varied: the fear of looking bad, of not being accepted, of creating a conflict and having a hard time, etc. In general, the common element to all these fears is “the fear of suffering.”
To combat it, Sarrás proposes to undertake “an early and persevering education in courage”, which will largely consist of training the will. First, to decide to seek the goods that reason reveals to us through the painful situations from which we would prefer to flee. And secondly, to accept the suffering that these situations cause and to face them. In this way, little by little, a brave and mature personality is forged, ready to face “the struggle to be what you want” and free to show yourself as you are.
From these three ideas – going back inside, thinking for yourself and having the courage to show yourself as you are – emerges an ideal of authenticity more harmonious than that dictated by the fashion culture today. And certainly also more genuine, because genuine is an invitation to integrate reason, will and affectivity – as Sarráis does – when sentimentality is the norm.