How to live an authentic life? How to be true to yourself? Kids know. They are their authentic selves without thought. So what happens to change us in that?
The authentic life, according to my long distant memory of Second Year Philosophy at Uni and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, is when you no longer define yourself by das man, but by your authentic, true self. What Heidegger called ‘Being-in-the-World’. He described this as a shift from a preference for distraction and inauthenticity, passivity, conformity, to a passionate embrace of Existenz, of a drive to one’s true possibilities. I have always taken from this that to define yourself by what you do, what your job is, by how you fit into a conforming society, is inauthentic. To be authentic, you have to be able to define yourself truly, and to live with enthusiastic possibility.
Kids do this.
When adults introduce themselves, they often swap information on jobs, schooling perhaps, how they know the people they are with, perhaps their parental or relationship status. Kids tend to swap names, and ages. Usually just ages if they’re very young, names being apparently not very important, and sometimes all they do is play and no information is swapped at all.
I asked my sons to answer the question ‘who are you?’
I am active
I am kind
I am good at games
I am good at biking and skiing
I love nachos and apples
‘I don’t really know what you mean.’
[i explained it a bit and asked – would you say what you do or what you like or what you are?] he said he’d talk about what he does. He thinks it’s important that people know what he likes ‘Everything’.
He said: I think that what someone is thinking about right now matters more than what you do, because that’s what’s important to them and it changes from what you might have done in the past.
He struggled to define himself because he just is. He exists, thinks, does, and doesn’t try to explain who he is.
Adults might define themselves by occupation, social relationships and structure, kids are more inclined to define themselves by virtues they see in themselves (kind, active, good at things).
Well, at least that was what I assumed. Turns out it depends on the question you ask.
I asked my friends – tell me who you are. How would you describe yourself? This is a little of what I got:
“mostly shameless, bold, adventurous, empathetic, extroverted, hilarious, weird, crazy, talkative”
“a lady on a sofa with a book”
“a surf nut”
“empathetic, take on everyone’s worries, do too much at my own detriment”
“honest and loyal, ridiculously open book about my life to everyone!”
“outgoing, assertive, and friendly”
“Sometimes I can’t let go of things that bother me, and I like things to be fair and logical”
“hardworking and committed”
“loyalty and kindness to me are the most important things in life”
“I’m the kind of person who stays to clean up after the party when everyone else has gone”
“I try and live my life with a purpose. I haven’t found it yet, but I keep looking!”
Maybe it’s because they already know me, they don’t have to do the introduction thing. But it really struck me that from the comments above you can’t tell who the architect is, who is the teacher, who is the nurse, the poet, the lawyer. You don’t know who is single, divorced, just married. You have no idea about their social circles. But you get a pretty good idea of the kind of person they are, and the kind of things they admire. To me, that’s pretty authentic.
It seems to me that we can go through stages of authenticity in our lives. As children we (usually) express ourselves openly in the world. When, however, self-consciousness kicks in (and that happens at different ages for different people) we second guess our own being. We seek safety in conformity even if it stifles us. There are the lucky ones who appear to be so confident in their skins, so supremely comfortable that they are the hub around which all bends. But, having taught quite a lot of these types of people, I can say that the vast majority of them are wrestling with their own insecurities about self. They just hide it in a different way.
One of the great things about being older is that I care much less about what others think of what I like and what I am. I still crave validation and praise (I’m working on changing that!) but am comfortable with who I am. In many ways I feel I am the same person I was when I was 16, just stronger and a touch more cynical.
The authentic life for me, ultimately, is about knowing yourself as YOU are, and knowing what you value and strive for, and is about having the same assurance of childhood. You are so busy being in the world that you don’t have to think about defining your place in it.