The “authenticity” bluff — why our lack of self-knowledge undermines our claims to be authentic

Authenticity. We love it.

We love the gritty, stripped down personality who says it like it is. We love the person who bares their soul. We dig musicians who reveals their innermost thoughts and hurts. We flock to pastors who calls a spade a spade.

But here’s the problem. We’re all pretty good at faking authenticity. I know. I do it all the time. You do, too.

Here’s the deeper problem. None of us really knows ourselves all that well. And you can’t be authentic to a self that you don’t know.

Self-deception runs deep with us humans.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) Similarly, Blaise Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” There are things going on deep down inside of us that make no reasonable sense at all.

We are a mystery to ourselves and no amount of psychologizing will penetrate our darkened hearts and minds. St. Paul tells us that when we reject our Creator our thinking goes all muddy and our hearts get all dark (Romans 1:21). The Oracle of Delphi’s famous saying — “Know thyself” — is more of a taunt than a challenge because of its impossibility. And Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true” is ironically put in the mouth of the manipulating and self-deceived Polonius, undermining its seeming wisdom.

So, the question remains: What are we being authentic to? To an internal feeling which may last for a bit and be gone? To a personal measure of truth?

And here’s a weird thing: It is possible to feel like we’re being authentic while be completely inauthentic.

The pastor who says he’s being authentic by preaching what’s on his heart is not being an authentic pastor. The authenticity of a pastor comes not from his heart but from his being true to the Scriptures. The authenticity of a sermon doesn’t come from the preacher’s perspective on or feelings about anything, but from God’s revelation of himself and of the world.

The man who says he’s being authentic by leaving his wife and children in order to express his sexual feelings with someone else (woman or man) isn’t being authentic at all. Authenticity is trueness to relationships, not to sexual feelings. Our humanity isn’t based on our sexual feelings, but on our relationships. All good and true human beings deny sexual feelings for lots of people in order to be authentic/true/faithful to their spouses and children.

The woman who says she’s being authentic when trashing a co-worker’s reputation by speaking poorly of her to others isn’t being authentic at all. Again, to be human is to be relational, and destroying relationships is inauthentic to who we were made to be, even if the damaging things being said are correct.

In the brilliant Zach Braff movie The Last Kiss, Braff’s character has a fling with a younger woman as an antidote to feeling trapped into marrying his pregnant girlfriend. When the truth comes out and everything goes sideways and messy, the jilted fiancee’s father, Stephen, talks with Braff. Stephen blasts any notion of authentic feelings and calls for actions of integrity. He says, “Stop talking about love. Every asshole in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. It still doesn’t mean anything. What you feel only matters to you. It’s what you do to the people you say you love, that’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.”

In each of these cases, the person has a sense of being authentic to certain inner feelings and yet acts inauthentically in the most important ways. In fact, we’re so good at making ourselves feel certain ways to justify our actions that we can actually convince ourselves that it would go against who we are to act any differently.

So, do we give up on authenticity?

As an excuse for bad behavior, yes. As a means of tricking ourselves into rejecting what we know is right, yes. But as something to long for, no.

The word “authentic” stands in contrast to the word “false.” If you have a signed Babe Ruth baseball card, you want to know that the signature is authentic, not false. Similarly, we want to be real, not fake. But as we’ve noted, with all of our self-deception, it’s hard for us to know when we’re real and when we’re fake. And since others can never see into our hearts, they can’t know if we’re real or fake either. We’re left with guesses.

If we really want to know what it means to be human, we shouldn’t be looking at ourselves at all. For when we look in the mirror, we only see a broken version of ourselves. It’s not a fake per se, but it’s not a whole person we see either.

Where we should be looking is at the one person who has lived this human life fully and truly: Jesus. Where we were created to be the image of God, Jesus alone is the unflawed image (Colossians 1:15). In Jesus, we don’t just see divinity, we see humanity as we were always intended to be.

And here is where I suggest that we ditch the word “authenticity” and replace it with “integrity.” An integer is a number that is whole, that is not fractured into fractions.

Instead of this odd notion of being authentic to our flawed and broken selves, we should strive for an integrity that is whole and fracture free.

To this end, the psalmist prays, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your Name” (Psalm 86:11).

Normally, we would put it this way: “Teach me your truth, O Lord, and I will walk in your way.” But the psalmist realizes that truth is not an abstract concept to be learned and then practiced on our own. What we need is to watch God, to look closely at Jesus as his disciples, to see not just the things that our Lord does but the way that he does them. And once we’ve soaked in all of these stories of the way God works and loves, then we’ll know how to walk in his truth. This is what puts back together an undivided, unfractured heart, making us healed and whole.

But this requires us to walk in a way that is alien to us because it’s God’s way and not our own way. It doesn’t feel authentic, but as we learn this new way of walking we actually become more of who we really are, because we become more of who we were created to be in the first place.

My wife has been experiencing some pain in her right leg. So, she went to see a physical therapist about it and was told that she walks incorrectly. She needs to learn a new way of walking that feels strange to her and actually causes more muscular pain in the short term, because it’s using muscles and tendons in ways that they haven’t been used. It feels wrong or inauthentic, but it’s essential to becoming whole and therefore truly authentic.

As the pieces of our lives come together, we become integers, we become whole. And it’s only when we become whole that we can have any true authenticity.

Again, we don’t do this by looking inside of ourselves. It’s a mess in there. There’s no integrity in there. It’s as we look to our Lord and walk in the ways we see him walking that we become healthy, whole, and holy.