The Trouble(s) with Being Authentic

After months of avoiding Pinterest like a recovering drunk avoids a happy hour, I finally gave in and signed up yesterday. Let’s hope I don’t lose myself to online dreaming completely. Trying to figure this new world out, I clicked on their Pin Etiquette page, which led me to this bit of wisdom:

“We think being authentic to who you are is more important than getting lots of followers. Being authentic will make Pinterest a better place long-term.”

Well said, Pinterest! I totally agree. I know they weren’t really trying to make some cosmically huge statement, but to me the basic idea behind this is pretty profound. Shakespeare said it—”to thine own self be true”—so it must be deep, right? When we stick closely to our authentic selves, everyone benefits. Humanity, with its rich diversity of opinions, strengths, traits, and talents, is so much stronger collectively than we—as our flawed, specialized, individual selves—could ever be alone.

Of course, not everyone rates living authentically as so supremely important. Others value being reliable, self-sufficient, memorable, skilled, generous, helpful, persuasive, efficient, and many other wonderful traits. But the older I get, the more I see that while I might like to pretend that I value being compassionate, say, or altruistic, what I really value above all else is being authentic and expressing this to the world.

But valuing authenticity and actually living your life this way are two entirely different things, or at least they are for me. I have long struggled with this issue—I feel a strong pull to be authentic to my true self, but I often end up going along with the crowd rather than risk standing out. It seems as though I’m caught between two unhappy options: feel pain from being inauthentic, or feel pain from being different and isolated. Are these really my only two options?

To be true to yourself, you must first uncover who “you” really are. This means trying out new things to discover your own particular set of interests, strengths, and weaknesses that make you who you are. This sounds like fun (now I’m trying knitting! now I’m into feng shui! now I’m going to graduate school!), but like everything, it has its drawbacks. After a while, things can start to get quite discouraging, as all this “trying” starts to feel a lot like “failing.” And then of course there’s the fatigue you see in the eyes of loved ones as they patiently listen to your latest craze. And let’s not forget about your partner’s impatience with the dollars flying out the door on yet another hobby—or worse, a business that failed or a costly degree that you no longer use.

No, getting to know yourself is not always easy. But let’s say you have some successes, mixed in with all these failures. You discover that you really love basket weaving! It’s your true calling! Life is glorious! Or maybe not. Sometimes when you come face to face with bits of your authentic self, you might feel a little uneasy. You might not like what you see. You always saw yourself as the brainy type, say, or maybe the brawny type instead, and basket weaving doesn’t quite mesh with this image. Or maybe you always secretly thought that basket weavers were selfish hermits who smelled weird. So now you find yourself suddenly lumped in with these types you’ve always shunned. What does this mean about you? What does this mean about your beliefs? These old forms of thought and judgment are being strained, and something’s got to give.

Of course, you could always just repress your love of basket weaving. Yes, you would give up a god-given love and opportunity for real joy in a life often filled with mundane minutiae, but in some ways, honestly, isn’t this easier than changing the way you see yourself? Isn’t this easier than facing things you’d rather not face?

But let’s say you don’t repress it. Or maybe you do but then something seismic (a great loss, illness, divorce—ahem) jolts you hard enough and you come to your senses. Yes! Basket weaving! Life is short! I am going to die one day! No more wimping and limping my way through life—this is it!

This energy is great energy. It doesn’t come from our small selves, our ego. It comes from the greater force, from god, from the collective creative. And it lights up so many things that you never saw before but now find staring you straight in the face. Basket weavers aren’t selfish! What if there weren’t any basket weavers in the world? Where would we put our dirty laundry? Where would the farmers put their zucchini at the farmers market? Where would the baker put her bread?

And then you get it. You really get it, that we all play our part, that we’re all small pieces of a larger, glorious whole, that we’re all equally important. Not the doctors and lawyers more than the garbage truck driver, but really, truly, equally important. And with this light that lights all before us and behind, it suddenly becomes easy to answer your call. It is as natural as breathing, as taking the next step when you get out of bed. You brush your teeth and there it is in your mind’s eye as clearly as if it were taped to the mirror: your next basket design. And why wouldn’t it be easy? It’s easy because you’re simply being who you are.

But unfortunately (and this is the part that’s been driving me crazy lately), at this point you are only halfway there. Yes, you’ve discovered your true passion, but now you have to live it. But wait, didn’t I just finish saying it’s so easy, what with all the light shining and making everything clear? Well, yes—and no. All that ah-ha-ing that happened back there, that all happened while you were alone, in your room, or maybe your car, possibly on the subway or in the frozen foods aisle at Costco. You hid the streams of tears coursing down your cheeks so no one could see, but you were changed.

OK. Excellent. But now you have to tell everyone else. Everyone who watched you practice the piano and encouraged you when you went to grad school, and even those who mocked you when you sucked at softball. Now you have to tell them that what you really love is making baskets. And then you have to wait through the silent-but-still-so-loud-you-can-hear-it groan that rattles around their brains as they listen to you say this. Even those that love you, that truly want to see you happy, they groan too. You know that they groan because they love you, because they want you to be happy, and they don’t know if they can bear to see you disappointed again, and you remind yourself of this. And the others, the ones who don’t really care but are listening just for something to do, you try to ignore those groans because you know they mean nothing. You remind yourself that in a few seconds they will be watching a video of an eagle picking up a baby.

So let’s say you make it through all that, through the putting yourself out there. Whew! What a relief. But wait, you’re not finished. You still have to do it. You still have to make the baskets. This is great fun, especially at first, but making baskets is a solitary act with way too much time to think. There is a lot of putting this one plant thingy on top of another plant thingy, which occupies your hands but not your mind. For the first couple hours perhaps you fill the silence by humming “Amazing Grace,” or “Single Ladies,” high on the euphoria of being in the zone and all that goodness, but pretty soon you forget to hum. Your mind is wide open, an empty coliseum just waiting for thousands of voices to bounce around and build to such a din that you find it hard to focus on your baskets at all. Some of the voices are friendly, sure, but why are they never as loud as the critical ones?

It seems to me that the critical voices are the loudest because they come from inside you. They sound like they belong to someone else, a family member on a bad day maybe, or the bully on the bus when you were in seventh grade, and maybe the voice really was theirs to start with. But at some point you took that voice and brought it deep within and made it your own. I know this because everyday we hear epically stupid things that we don’t pay any mind to at all: The world is ending next Tuesday. It’s healthy to go on a diet of nothing but liquid. Return this postcard and you’ll win a free trip to Hawaii. But then some crap kid says some crap thing to make herself feel better and whack! There it is, stamped on your sense of self forever: YOU SUCK. Why is this? Because YOU SUCK was already rattling around in there before you ever even heard it confirmed by that crap kid. It had been there ever since you noticed that the neighbor boy could ride his bike standing up when you were still wobbly and cold-sweaty with training wheels on. Probably even earlier. Ever since you started comparing yourself to others and coming up short.

But hey, what about all that light? What about that day in Costco when you saw THE TRUTH that we’re all different, but we’re all important? Doesn’t that clear up why little Major down the street could pop wheelies up and down the drive while you were lucky to keep from stumbling while chasing after on foot? What did little Major grow up to be, anyway? A stunt man? A day trader? A sheriff? Aren’t you eternally grateful that the world doesn’t need you to become a stunt man, day trader, or sheriff, and that Major’s there to do it so you don’t have to? And doesn’t all this TRUTH make it OK that you couldn’t really ride that bike properly until you were a teenager? For if you could have kept up with Major, wouldn’t it have altered you in some way that would have led you somewhere else, away from this moment, down a different path—a path without baskets?

Well, yes, mostly. Sort of. Sometimes. Occasionally. But the rest of the time, there are still all those voices. Old habits die hard. It takes a long time to weave a basket. You only know so many songs to fill up the silence.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. If I did I wouldn’t be writing this. Or maybe I would because I’m so altruistic. Except oh yeah, that’s right, I’m not. :)

Do you know the answer? If so, please tell me! I could use some tips, especially in 2013, the year I am trying to finish my FIRST DRAFT of my novel. Ahhh!

I will tell you this one little thing. I had a nice dinner with friends the other night, and stuck in between all the talk of sex and religion, I managed to peep out a little bit about my ongoing successes and struggles with writing, and even some early thoughts I have about starting a new business. They listened, and nodded, and said encouraging things. Their voices have buoyed me up in the days since. These new voices didn’t make the old ones go away, but they did give them some competition. Buddhist monks spend their lives learning how to silence all those old voices. Maybe the rest of us can make do by packing our minds with as many new ones as we can.

© Amy Daniewicz

9 thoughts on “The Trouble(s) with Being Authentic”

    1. Thanks, Meredith! Yeah, as a stuntman, I’d wound myself, and as a sheriff, I’d wound everyone else!!! :)

    1. Aw, thanks so much, Elliott! Sorry to disappoint about the baskets . . . :) Maybe a book/basket??? Although that might be a long wait, too. :)

  1. Amy- thanks for this. I struggle with authenticity as I think I know in my core who I am and what I am meant to do but it seems to dangerously conflict with the society I live in. Conforming is, sadly, sometimes just easier. However, I think, that as long as I try every day to do something that is truly ‘me’ then I won’t get completely lost…. And I am finding that each step to be ‘me’ gets easier and easier and the joy it provides starts to outweigh the benefits of conformity.

  2. Heidi! I am right there with you, and it’s so nice to read your thoughts. I agree about the getting easier part, and I swear, that is one thing that makes me excited about getting older. (It’s good there’s at least one good thing about it!) You know what is so funny, I was thinking of you this morning! I was remembering your comment about how no one ever talks about the importance of sex in marriage, and thinking that would make a good blog post. I hope you are well! :)

  3. I love this Amy. So much of it resonated with me. You are so so right that those voices are hard to ignore because it’s really your own. You should know, though, that you are such an inspiration to live authentically! I think you are doing a great job of it.
    p.s. religion AND sex?? sounds like an awesome dinner party ;)

    1. Yes, ma’am! I’ll come back anytime you ask me!! :) Thank you, Emily, for the kind words and the support (and the soup). :) Glad your boys are doing better.

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