“Poets, philosophers and seers have always concerned themselves with the idea of a true self, and the betrayal of the self has been a typical example of the unacceptable.” (D.W. Winnicott, The Concept of the False Self)
From its beginnings over 500 years ago, the ideal of authenticity has been embedded in the value system of modern Western civilization. Shakespeare’s words “To thine own self be true” (Hamlet), reflect as well as any others what authenticity has meant to the Western mind. Each of us, according to this ideal, has our own path to tread, determined by our unique combination of traits and potentials.
But despite its significance in the west, very few people live up to the ideal of authenticity. To shy away from the task and to seek comfort in conformity is far more common. In this video we’ll explore what it means to live authentically and the benefits of doing so.
If the ideal of authenticity is to have any merit a “true” or “real” self must exist, at least as a potentiality, within each of us. While such a conception of the self may seem vague and indefinable, numerous thinkers have attempted to elaborate coherent positions regarding its existence.
The psychiatrist Donald Winnicott conceptualized the true self as the source of one’s spontaneous and creative energies, the sort of which are abundant in children at play, but often repressed in adulthood. William James likewise envisioned the true self as “the palpitating inward life” (William James), while the psychotherapist Karen Horney described it as:
“the alive, unique, personal center of ourselves; the only part that can, and wants to, grow.” (Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth)
The task of living authentically has two elements. First, we must become aware of the existence of our true self, a task which requires self-reflection and introspection. And secondly, we must express this true self in our day-to-day lives. Taking these actions may be necessary to live a fulfilling life, for as the Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” (The Gospel of Thomas)
In the lives of most, however, the true self is denied and given little opportunity for expression. Rather in response to feelings of insecurity and vulnerability, or a general apprehensiveness about life, many people develop what is called “character armor” or a “false self”. Character armor is formed due to the fear that our true self, being an expression of our uniqueness, will be rejected and perhaps ridiculed by others. While protecting us from such threats, the formation of character armour is done at the cost of cutting us off from the feeling of being alive. “Only the True Self can be creative and the True Self can feel real,” wrote Donald Winnicott. “the existence of a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility.” The more one allows their true self to be masked by a false self, the more it becomes deadened and ineffectual, and the more one begins to fall victim to what Soren Kiekegaard called “the biggest danger, that of losing oneself”.
Kierkegaard discussed the various ways in which one can succumb to the spiritual sickness of “losing oneself” in his book The Sickness Unto Death. One of the primary ways is to suppress one’s real self by succumbing to an extreme identification with society. Instead of facing up to the challenge of living authentically, that is, individually and creatively, most people find it much safer and easier to lose themselves in the crowd:
“What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world. They use their abilities, amass wealth, carry out worldly enterprises, make prudent calculations, etc., and perhaps are mentioned in history, but they are not themselves. In a spiritual sense they have no self.” (Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death)
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger likewise took note of the tendency of human beings to flee from what he called the “authentic ability-to-be-self” into the comforts of conformity. Heidegger observed that our normal, everyday mode of existing is a form of inauthenticity he called “falling”. One of the main ways we “fall” is by existing as das Man, which is German for “the one” or “the they”, as in “one simply doesn’t do things like that”. Das Man represents the anonymous or average member of the social group, and thus the modes of thought, belief, and behavior which are considered normal and expected.
When we exist as das Man we allow our experience and behavior to be shaped and determined by what “one says”, “one thinks”, or “one does”. “We do not say what we see but rather the reverse, we see what one says about the matter.” (Martin Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time) To extricate ourselves from our tendency to think, behave, and live “as one does”, Heidegger advised we transform the attitude we hold towards death.
Generally, we do not face up to our own death, but instead we evade it in a myriad of ways. We tell ourselves that death is not relevant to the living and that to think about it is morbid and a waste of time. Or we relate to death impersonally. We recognize that others die and that one day we will too, but we tell ourselves, “for the time being not yet” (Martin Heidegger, Being and Time). In other words, we fail to recognize both the importance of death in our life as well as the ever-present possibility of it. To remedy this Heidegger recommends cultivating what he calls “resoluteness” towards death. He advises “running ahead” toward it and relating to it with “anticipation”, that is to say, of living with an awareness of the importance of death and of the fact that our end could come at any moment. Adopting this stance is what Heidegger calls “being-towards-death”.
Such a way of being is difficult. The more aware we are of the omnipresence of death the more anxiety we invite into our life. “Being-towards-death”, Heidegger explains, “is essentially anxiety.”(Martin Heidegger, Being and Time). Yet for Heidegger, this anxiety is also the key to freedom and authenticity. In existing as das Man we take the values of our society for granted and immerse ourselves in social roles and societal games. To use Heidegger’s terminology, we tend to “do what one does” without question.
When overcome with a mood of anxiety, on the other hand, the ways of the world no longer seem normal and familiar, but strange, unintelligible, and meaningless. Our thoughts about “what one does” and thus what is expected of us appear absurd and tend to vanish, and we are left free to reflect upon what matters most to our existence, to choose our own original path, in short, to live authentically. Or as Heidegger wrote in Being and Time, the anxiety stimulated by being-towards-death “individualizes me down to myself”(Martin Heidegger, Being and Time).
Yet Heidegger did not think we could escape the grips of das Man once and for all. An authentic existence is not something that can be accomplished and forgotten about, rather our deep-rooted tendency to conform requires we confront this challenge anew each day. And while most will shrink from this task, the few who welcome it will be greatly rewarded, for as the poet E.E. Cummings wrote:
“To be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else–means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” (E.E. Cummings, A Miscellany)