“To Thine Own Self Be True”: The Pain and Enlightment of Authenticity



“To thine own self be true”

There are many interpretations of Shakespeare’s expressions, and I am certainly no expert in Late Middle Age literature, but to me, Shakespeare was trying to emphasize the importance of the authentic life. Polonius uttered this timeless reminder of the virtue of authenticity to the audience in the third scene of the first act of Hamlet.  Several hundred years earlier, during the age of chivalry, pain and honor were often intertwined. But during the time of Hamlet and nearer the 16th century, humanism and honesty were rare virtues. The 16th century was a period of ghosts and melancholy, a time when to tell the truth could mean heresy and certain death.  It seemed Shakespeare was effortfully pushing away the conventional thinking of the time, moving past our darkest age, and into the next more authentic stage, the Enlightenment.

Websters dictionary defines authenticity in the following way:

  1. 1a :  worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact paints an authentic picture of our societyb :  conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features

  2. 2:  not false or imitation:real,  actualan authentic cockney accent

  3. 3:  true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character is sincere and authentic

But what does it mean to be an authentic human in the 21st century?

In this age of social media and self-preserving conduct, how does one know that he or she is being honest about who they are? And even if they know, why is it so hard to act in accordance with our values.

Heidegger believed that authenticity comes from our effort toward “avoiding the tendency to move toward conventional thinking and behavior.”  Is this authenticity?

The political historian and journalist Theodore White said, “To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform. Is this authenticity?

The French Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre saw authenticity as choosing in a way that reveals the existence of the essence of self-determination and self-realization. He felt that authenticity and individuality have to be earned, not learned.

In this age of quick 140 character utterances and well-sculpted home pages, of fingertip fast purchasing, and texting through traffic, and  divorcee home improvement experts and house-flippers, how can we live up to the expectations of the well-uniformed, and trust the mass paramedia and uncorrectable politically corrected? How can we be authentic when all our leaders and heroes are lying to us all, all the time?

Well, lets simplify things a bit. Do you know what is right and honest for you at any given moment in time, and can you move toward that rightness without the requirement to remove discomfort? Authenticity means allowing oneself to endure the struggles and hurt that come from honesty and truth.

Authenticity means not retreating into safety and instead standing in growth and truth. It is about raising your intention above your psychological and emotional requirements.

Make no mistake, it is not easy to be authentic. In fact, it will often mean enduring more discomfort at first. And isn’t that the very reason we avoid authentic behavior? Isn’t it that we are trying to avoid some undesirable outcome? Take for example the choice to avoid telling an inconsistent and unreliable friend that they are frustrating you with their constant lateness and cancellations. We avoid the assertion because we don’t want to risk rejection or confrontation, because confrontation is tough and often unpredictable. But what happens when we continue to remove this important disclosure from the relationship? The answer: nothing. Our fickle friend continues to cancel last minute and show up late for dinner and we continue to feel frustrated. But it doesn’t end there, because when we deny our true needs and authentic self, we privately lose face with ourselves.

The truth is that we are the only audience to the private moments and thoughts of our life. We sit back and watch the lead character in the play called “LIFE” acting in ways that are inconsistent, dishonest, and disengenious. And the audience (YOU) are disappointed. We can’t help but feel let down and even regretful when we betray our values. If this play continued on this way, disappointment would be replaced with self-doubt, self-doubt replaced with poor self-confidence, and poor self-confidence with loss of vitality. And a life without vitality is timid and idle.

So instead, be authentic and take the loss and pain that come from the truth of your life. Tell your friend that you don’t appreciate his lateness and allow the truth to mold the relationship toward your values, toward you. Tell others what you feel, truly, not because this elephant or that donkey told you to, but because it is how you feel. Give yourself the freedom to change your mind and adjust your collar. Tell it like it is and let your life illuminate to the fullest.

Bob Marley said that “out of da darkness der muss come aaouut da lighht.” Light, after all, comes from heat. And where does heat come from if not pressure and friction? Sometimes we have to experience distress to get to the preferred outcome. Growth is almost always achieved through pain and discord. There is only one circumstance in which pain does not produce growth. When pain and distress are the subsequent outcome to avoiding pain itself, we have not grown. To the contrary, we have compressed and stagnated. Avoidance of discomfort when the cost is a value we have for life, the result is “shrinkage” (well placed obligatory Seinfeld reference). Think about it.  Think about the last time you avoided discomfort and it cost you a value. It turned you toward misdirection. How did you reconcile that 180? How did you face yourself? What was required to do so? Alcohol? Lies? Deception? Then what? Where from there? And if pain is the consequence of trying to remove pain then you just proved that the infinite regress can be infinitely painful, repeatedly and without any reward for your infinite effort. Instead pursue your truest importance and make room for the pain that comes from doing so. Think of working out a muscle, doesn’t it hurt to grow. Or the growth that comes from learning a new idea or area of study. Studying is hard! And often feels irritating, but there is no other way! I had to be irritated to finish grad school. If I avoided irritation, I would still be buying $1.50 jello bowls at the cafeteria waiting for my 3 hour class followed by 1 hour lab at 8:30 pm. And I would still be irritated. There is that infinite regress, but now with irritation and cheap jello.

Kahlil Gibran in his acclaimed “The Prophet” said that, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.” Pain and joy walk hand and hand and they share square footage inside of you. Embrace them both as you would your children because they both need your acceptance and attention.

If you are a musician, think of this concept in terms of harmony. Harmony is the agreement of two notes to produce a pleasing effect. In music theory it is understood that, sometimes, it is the two most incongruent notes that create the most beautiful chord. The harmonious sound of truth and mutual understanding that comes from an honest confrontation with a dear, albiet “flighty” friend. The concert that comes from acknowledging our faults so that we can forgive others for theirs. And the peace and pride that comes from facing our fears, even if doing so means being afraid. These are the edifying actions of an authentic life.

Authenticity means that we move toward our deepest most honest values and make room for the resulting discomfort. It means that we are not afraid of the true nature of our life. The true essence. In life, pain is unavoidable. So, instead of putting effort toward retreating into safety, put effort toward renewing and expanding growth. Authenticity is the best pillow for your soul.

Till next time

Comments are closed.