What is Authenticity?
Updated: Nov 27, 2021
How letting go of the ego allows us to become our authentic self.
August 10th 2017, I travelled from Interlaken, Switzerland, to an unknown village "6000 feet beyond man and time." Why? To find a pyramidal rock.
Our travel to central Italy in the summer of 2017 required that we took a little detour through the ragged mountain passes of the Swiss countryside to find a large rock emerging from the side of Lake Silvaplana. Although generally, I like rocks (I always find myself feeling quite meditative when sat upon them), our journey was not simply with the intention to gaze upon the interesting formation of the stone. This was the rock, which in the 1880s, struck Nietzsche like a lightning bolt, pulling the idea of 'Eternal Recurrence' from the depths of his soul.
The town of Sils Maria adjacent to Lake Silvaplana is where Nietzsche spent many of his summers, writing the magnificent 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' upstairs in a small bedroom of the often frequented guest house.
Nietzsche is well-known for his bold and charismatic writing style. Like Oscar Wilde, Nietzsche often wrote in aphorisms. The short and sharp statements did not only hold aesthetic value; it was also a consequence of Nietzsche's poor health and poor eyesight that, on his doctor's advice, he was compelled to keep his writing short and to the point.
One of my favourite aphorisms by Nietzsche is from 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra.' The protagonist, a prophet-like figure echoing Nietzsche's voice from the mountain top proclaims:
"Become who you are!"
This aphorism stands out to me because it captures a central theme in Nietzsche's philosophy, a theme which would be carried through the next century by existentialists (such as Martin Heidegger) critical theorists (such as Hannah Arendt) and psychoanalysts (such as Carl Jung).
The theme central to Nietzsche's philosophy is authenticity.
Authenticity continues to be a popular concept in today's world as an opposition to superficiality, homogeneity and conformity. But what is authenticity? And how can I become my most authentic self? In other words:
How can I "become who I am?'
Nietzsche's maxim, which is also iterated by Jung in his theory of individuation, suggests that in our everyday experience we are not our most authentic selves.
Imagine Stewart. Stewart works in customer service, answering telephone calls and emails in a nine-to-five job. In this role (since it is a role he performs), Stewart is congenial, helpful, and extremely patient with customers complaining to him about their Wi-Fi connection. At home, however, Stewart is depressed, fed-up with his relationship, and sick of his job. Since he was young, Stewart had always loved reading Byron and aspired to be a successful poet. Now, due to his long hours and financial debts, Stewart struggles to find the time or the energy for his passion.
Stewart is living inauthentically. He is unhappy with his job, fed-up with his relationship, and failing to pursue his passion for poetry. Deep down, Stewart still sees himself as a poet, but his beliefs about himself, about the lack of financial stability in pursuing a career in poetry, and societal conventions which tell us poetry is not a feasible job in the modern world, are just some of the few limiting factors preventing him from becoming who he is.
Authenticity carries the connotation of truth, and as such, requires acceptance, acknowledgement, and recognition of what it is we really want. Aligning with our true desires in order to live the life that we want is difficult. It means coming to terms with our current reality and actively willing to change it. The reason that Nietzsche's proclamation "Become who you are!" is startling is that it wakes us up from the slumber of automatic everyday existence and challenges us to ask - who am I really?
Knowing who we are requires us to know who we are not. This, according to Carl Jung, is the goal of a lifetime. We can only become our most authentic self by emptying ourselves of the external forces which have moulded our personalities since birth. We often forget, or fail to stop and think, that despite our confidence in our egos almost everything we think and feel has come to us from the outside. The culture, family, religion, city, or time into which we are born shapes, to a large extent, the way we perceive the world and interact with it. In other words, our ego is not simply a product of our own design, but is importantly shaped by our spatio-temporal conditions.
If so much of our personality is shaped by our external reality, by what our parents, teachers, government leaders, or the media tell us is true, then how can we know what parts of ourselves are authentic and which are not?
Self-knowledge and awareness comes with practice, primarily, through finding time to be quiet and connect with oneself. Whether you call it mindfulness, meditation, or simply taking some time for yourself, it is vitally import to actively make space in your day to sit with yourself, to focus on your breathing, to connect in with your body, and to take a walk in nature to disconnect from the limiting beliefs that arise out of collective human thought. It is here, in the quiet stillness beyond the facade of the ego, that we hear the distant voice of intuition calling out from the depths of the self.
But the authentic self does not appear straight away, not can it be coaxed out of the recesses of the psyche overnight. Finding authenticity means stripping away the levels of the ego shaped by external forces. You must decide what aligns with your basic values and reject everything that does not in order to dig deeper and deeper into the substance of your personality.
Authenticity requires openness and an unbending commitment to truth; in the quest for the authentic life, honesty triumphs at any cost. Being authentic is difficult, that is why many of us live a life that is disconnected from our purpose. But if a life of fulfilment and joy is the reward for our struggle, then we must throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the face of adversity:
"The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are..." - Carl Jung.