Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Authenticity comes at a high price

That's what one of my online friends said this week. I keep thinking it over.

What is authenticity really? How do I know when I'm being authentic? I've been a person who takes the time to think through what I believe (whether it has to do with faith, birth, schooling, parenting, politics, computers (Macs, of course)). But that doesn't always mean that I've come to an authentic place when I draw my conclusions. So many mitigating forces compete unbeknownst to me. I'm sure now that much of the appeal of Campus Crusade in college, for instance, is that it ensured me a pool of "moral males" from which to find a husband - hopefully a bunch of guys who would agree that you should marry once, for life, and not fool around. My parents' divorce had a powerful impact on me at that time in my life, and yet if you had asked me then, I would have said that I was making choices based on discovering the truth. And I believed that to be the case at the time.

Then there were those decisions like missions, not using birth control and letting God choose the size of our family, not circumsizing our boys (only to find out that my uncircumsized Dad in his 60s has had all kinds of problems that led to a circumcision at that late age! Ouch!), participation in Operation Rescue, joining the charismatic/prophetic movement, homeschooling, and more that felt so right at the time, yet on review, look like they were an expression of that need to commit to the hilt, to join with those who put "right" ahead of "feelings." What a potent frame that need to be right was. It was a kind of protection against the swirling chaos of choice, self-knowledge and the dangers of someone else undermining my aspirations with their flakiness. If I could conclude what was right, I didn't have to consult feelings, finances, fears or faith. I could just do what was right and I'd be right too.

I don't regret all these decisions, btw. For instance, I have never regretted homeschooling. It is a happy accident that has turned out to be something I still believe in even after all the other religious cant was deconstructed and looked at newly.

I felt I was being genuine in each place, though, and I thought I was taking in all the considerations when I made these choices. I believed I was being "authentic." Perhaps I was at the time, given the limits of my knowledge, the invisibility of my emotional crisis as an adult child of divorce, and my rigid Christian belief system. I can see at work these silent partners: drive for community, rejection of family of origin's values, the need to make a difference, putting my "convictions" ahead of my emotions or doubts, dichotomistic thinking...

I remember being in my first graduate course nearly four years ago. The professor gave a lecture that discussed the radical nature of the vision Paul casts in his letters, how it has often been misused as an endorsement of the status quo rather than an overhaul of it. He made mention of how Christianity was a challenge to empire, that it was meant to cut to the heart of the culture and style of governing. As he built his case, I raised my hand and told him what I thought he didn't know: that evangelicals and fundamentalists felt the same way today - that they were wanting to use their faith to change the culture, to overthrow a secular style of governing and turn it toward Christ.

My professor countered: "I would contend that today's Christians want to preserve the status quo at the deepest levels. They are not about challenging it, but about preserving it, protecting and warding off challengers. They are the essence of empire and not the essence of what Paul or Jesus were about."

I had no idea what he was talking about. I remember being so frustrated that he hadn't heard my point, didn't understand just how much my community believed itself to be radical, changing the course of the country and bringing faith to a godless nation, etc. Yet even as I thought it, I knew my own mind limited me. I couldn't quite see my thinking, I could only see the results of my thoughts.

As we left class, I caught up with Dr. Dewey and asked him with anxiety: "How do you learn to observe your own thinking, to see the way you form ideas and thoughts? I feel trapped by my own brain. I sense there is a way to see my thinking so that I recognize the traps I lay for myself, the ways I skew information to fit a pattern. But right now, I can't see it. I don't know how to get there. I know you are talking about things that mean something other than the meaning I am making from them. But I can't see what it is." I was a bit desperate.

He replied, "Julie, patience. You'll get there. It takes time and you are just beginning that process now."

That wasn't the answer I wanted, but it was the right answer. For four years, I've been learning more about the way I process information than anything else. I find myself stopping mid-read of an article aware of my knee-jerk reactions, conscious of how I might have interpreted something before, aware of the influences on my interpretations now. I ask different questions than I used to ask. I wonder new things.

But I still ask that central question: Am I being authentic? What is really true about me and my relationship to this idea right now? My ceaselessly questioning nature has sadly resulted in the closing off of important relationships when I dig deeper and change courses. These are the ones I've cultivated in the various communities that had similar values to mine. Every seven years or so, it seems to happen again—I change and we part. It distresses me. Somehow there is always a price for repeatedly evaluating one's place in the universe.

I wish it weren't so. But I don't know how else to live.


Sentient Marrow said...

I feel like I am at the beginning of the process you speak of except that I am not going to grad school... instead I feel myself learning how to evaluate my thinking in counseling. And, gosh, what you're teacher said is right and I feel like I am having the same reaction you did. I definitely don't want to be patient. I keep wondering when I will get to the point where I can consciously evaluate my responses/reactions to people/ideas/whatever at the same time I am having them. Or at least think to evaluate them later that day. Really. Being that self-aware is hard work, as you obviously know.

thechurchgeek said...

Funny, I was in a study recently looking at the text of Paul's protection of Judiasm and his persecution of early christians.

One person kept saying that this is what we see in Islam today, while I kept thinking this is the type of thing we see within Christianty today, we just don't brandish weapons to do it.

carrie said...

Off topic- The fact that my dad had to undergo circumcision as an adult due to recurring problems (and he was a fastidiously clean person) had a huge impact on our decision to circumsize our boys.

I wonder if there is anything to be gained by going back and questioning the "authenticity" of our lives and decisions in the past. While it is good to reevaluate what we think, feel, believe, and do, it seems unproductive to try to decide whether we were being genuine when we made those choices and lived those ideals. I think in most cases were were true to what we knew. So in as far as we were able, we were "authentic."

I guess I have another constant self-searching all that productive? I think we can overly obsessed with "me." It can become naval-gazing, don't you think?

I think you might enjoy the book I'm reading. it's Mediated by Thomas De Zengotita. The writing style is different (actually, it reminds me of my own, which I don't think is all that great), but the premise is very interesting. One premise is that due to our mediated world, we do most things self-consciously. We are to some extent always "performing." And no information we receive has been untouched by "media." The book is a fascinating look at how we experience life in our globally connected world. I think it touches on this search for authenticity. (He doesn't paint it all bad...just as a fact to be considered.)

Rick said...

I had to read this post four times to follow what was going on. Much like your process, I imagine. "Authentic" is a troublesome word for me - I don't think it is totally synonymous with "real". In your journey, my journey, whatever, I hope to be real, and I think from your few glimpses here you have been real and true to yourself where you were at those times. "Authentic" doesn't mean "right", just being real right now, maybe. Anyway, I am also spending much time on the process of the process, why I think the way I think, how to lead others in my own church/ministry capacity to process in a way that's meaningful beyond just powerpoint slides.

Need to read this again, probably.

TiaDavidandourLittleChickens said...

This is a question on my plate right now too, as I'm in the midst of writing a book around my blog/life theme of Living Deliberately. I think, down in the analysis of what that really means to me, that it's about making my outward behavior match my inward thoughts and beliefs. When we live the way really feel/are/think, we are being authentic for that place in time. That in and of itself is a major feat in a culture where there is much dysfunction, behavior designed to keep up an appearance rather than display honesty, and superficial living while our consciences inwardly beg us to change our ways. In thinking, I don't think I want to as much be "right" according what the current trend of correctness is as the moment (or counter that trend in some cases) as I do to really confront what I believe inside and make sure my outward choices accurately reflect that. That kind of shifts the focus off any external, individual choice as well, and aids in the viewing of regrets or what was "authentic back then" because it's not about those choices but rather the cumulative reflection of who that person really is.

For what its worth, I'd describe you as a very authentic person, not because of any choice in your life regarding schooling options, computers, faith...but because I've learned to know you to be a person who thinks and weighs what is behind each choice and honestly seeks to live in a way congruent with your inner self, no matter what that might mean. Authenticity requires bravery and a committment to self honesty and you have that.

R. Michael said...

It definitely is challenging to look at ourselves from the outside in...but I am learning that what really motivated me earlier in my christian experience was not my "zeal for God" but my own fears, inadequacies, hang-ups, etc. I think the message of the gospel is radical...but not in the ways that we may think....i.e. let's start with the discussion of the plank in our own eye.

brian said...


Authenticity certainly has it's price. I've paid it a time or two and anticipate I'll have to pay it again. But, it beats the alternative. I hope I'm always willing to pick up my tent and move on when the time is right and pay whatever the price for following the call to truth.


Ampersand said...

sorry I deleted my previous comment because the link was bad.

I like this topic and the comments that it has inspired. I posted some of my musings on the topic over at my place: the A-word.

SusansPlace said...

I have been thinking about the high cost...wondering if it is worth it. For me, there isn't any other way than to question and when I change perspectives(due to questioning or life circumstances) to own up to it. Owning up to where we are, what we believe EVEN WHEN it's different from what we used to believe is authenticity, imo. It comes at a high price. Many aren't driven by that need for authenticity...and that's ok. Recently my folks reminded me that from the time I was a little girl I have been full of questions, seeking answers. They used to talk to me till 2 in the morning about spiritual questions I had. It's in my genes. I can't not be that way. Nor can you.

I like your prof's calm response.

We live, we grow, we change and when we admit to change we are authentic. Perhaps I'm equating authentic with honest more than it needs to be. The two sort of co-mingle in my mind.

Great post!


Keren said...

Hi Julie,

I'm a daily lurker on your blog. To add a little international dimension, I'm a New Zealander living in the UK. So much of what you say meshes with my current beliefs, and I get a peculiar warm feeling of community with you and your blog contributors! (Please don't think I'm mad - it's just nice to feel I'm not alone in my wanderings...)

A little background on me - I started questioning my faith about four years ago, and it's been a long, very painful deconstruction of pretty firmly held beliefs. I was born and bred part of a religious christian community that is about as dogmatic as you can get on specific beliefs. I class myself now as agnostic on general religious beliefs, but (still) theistic.

To Carrie, re: too much navel gazing. I've done plenty of soul searching in my time, including psychotherapy. You're right, self-obsession and self-pity are destructive. But then "The unexamined life is not worth living". Understanding yourself and your reactions creates a much larger measure of self-control, and self control is one of the fruits of the Spirit. But understanding yourself takes soul searching.

Basically, I think it's one of those things where you need to tread the Golden mean. Swing too much in either direction, and you'll be wrong.

julieunplugged said...

Keren, nice to meet you! Welcome to my blog. I hope you'll post more so we can get to know you. Do you have a blog?

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie - I really enjoyed this post! Being authentic is so important to me. I wrote my own thoughts if you are interested:

I've enjoyed reading everyone's posts and comments about authenticity. I have to agree with Carrie that too much self-evaluation can be a bit too "me" focused (for me, I mean). Instead, I simply try to pay close attention to my feelings as I cruise along in my life and make adjustments accordingly.

I don't know...maybe that is just too "by-the-seat-of-the-pants" for most people, but for me, it works! =)