How much of your life is spent wearing a mask? How many times during the day do you make decisions that you would never make if you were truly free? When someone asks you “how are you doing?” do you say “I’m fine” or “not bad” or “doing great” when you really feel horrible or depressed or sad? As adults we’re masters of “sedation and control” as Michael Brown says in the Presence Process. We find ways of masking our emotions from others and from ourselves. We drown them out or bury them or fight them. A million tiny codes define our lives. Outside pressures, the will of the group, of society, of history, of the family, of money and security, of scarcity, of survival, of the environment, all of these forces press into us from every angle and seek to drive and influence our behavior and our decisions.
What does it take for us to maintain our true selves in the face of these fierce pressures? Is it even possible? What does it take to be authentic? What does it take to live a life that matches your inner life?
In art, authenticity means creating art that’s faithful to the artist’s inner self, rather than conforming to the desire for money or the pull of historical tradition. A writer has to write the story he wants to tell and not worry about how it’s perceived or how he can sell it. The time to sell it comes later. Or it never comes. It doesn’t matter. You write the story and then you worry about writing the God damn query letter. You write the story as it wants to be told, then you worry about reducing it to paragraph and pimping it out to publishers and the agents. It flows through you but it is not from you. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in the Prophet, “they come from you but they are not of you.” He was talking about children but the same is true of the authentic artist.
In psychology, authenticity means living life according to the needs and wants of your inner self, rather than society’s demands or childhood and social conditioning, that tells you, you are this or you are that. The existential philosophers spilled a lot of ink on the idea of authenticity and coined the term. Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Heidigger saw the desire for authenticity as a war between our sense of self and the external forces that want to shape and mold you into something very different. This is Man versus himself, Man versus society, Man versus Man. These conflicts are the center pieces of all great literature. How does the self respond to these outside forces? Does it end up ground down to nothing, or does it withstand the friction and hold strong to its inner spirit?
Artists and philosophers down the ages have struggled with this problem and defined it in different ways. Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Frank Sinatra sang “For what is a man? What has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.” The Indians and Buddhists saw all our labels as a clinging to the transient and therefor inauthentic. The very act of saying “I am this, or I am that,” means we’ve fallen for the illusion. Saying I am this or that reduces us, traps us and blinds us to the universal energy that runs like a river beneath our lives. It’s why Indian guru Sri Nisargadatta’s most famous work is called I Am That because it defines the most basic struggle of our lives.
Not living a life that reflects our inner world means you’ll end up with what ifs. What if I’d said this or that? What if I stood up instead of sitting down? You don’t want to ask “what if”, when cancer strikes you or you struggle for breath in a crushed car or as you go to sleep for the last time.
Authenticity is the central defining conflict of my own life and that ends up reflected in my characters. It’s pain that drives us from authenticity. The mind betrays us. It tells us we can skip the pain for now. It never tells us that the pain we’ll feel as we face the shotgun at the end is a thousand times worse than the pain we avoided. The central defining conflict of all my characters, protagonists and antagonists is this war for authenticity. How they face the pressures of the world defines their destiny. The antagonists feel powerless and trapped and react with anger and violence. They never see the path to freedom that’s available to us all. The protagonists find a way, despite the violence done to them, to make their own choices, to respond instead of react. It’s a slim line between the hero and the villain.
I realized recently that the pain and suffering of being inauthentic is worse than pain and suffering necessary to live a life that matches my inner life. That’s why I started this blog. It’s why I committed to all aspects of my writing craft, whether it’s the work of fiction or the work of getting it published. I decided if I can’t say what I want to say, speak my mind and be true, then what’s the point? To do that I have to put myself out here on the page. And that means people could love me or hate me. I could affect my career if some small minded employer with an unexamined life Googles me and finds my blog where I talk about drugs and sex and whatever else I feel like fucking talking about. I don’t care anymore. And because of that I’m willing to lose everything except my writing.
Where do you draw the line? When do you stand up and say “enough” no matter what the consequences? What are you willing to die for?