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.