On Authenticity

Each and every one of us has at some point in our lives paused to ponder over questions like “Who am I?”, “What is the meaning of life?”, “What is the nature of reality?”, “What does it mean to exist, to be?” and so on. As we pondered over these questions we came up with answers or more broadly speaking ideas. Some of us continue to keep the question open and enjoy the inquiry along with all the insights it opens. Some of us are clear that we have in our possession the perfect answer or the perfect bundle of ideas for an inquiry into these questions. Nevertheless, we continue to be fascinated by these questions. I don’t think humanity will ever get tired of inquiring into these questions.

In fact, these questions are not new. They are ancient questions. The prehistoric caveman was probably haunted by these questions as much as the modern working professional is. Our children and their children are likely to ponder over these questions as much as (or maybe more than) we do.

Many schools of thought and philosophical traditions have taken birth in response to the inquiry into these questions. Personally, I am fascinated by one school of thought or philosophical tradition called: Existentialism. To me, existentialism is a collection of ideas born out of an inquiry into these questions. They provide a powerful set of ideas that construct tools for an inquiry into these questions.

I like to call this inquiry into these questions as “philosophical inquiry.” Anybody who has done any bit of philosophical inquiry invariably has this insight that all of reality is subjective. That our reality exists for us in the backdrop of our interpretations. The first time one comes in touch with this insight, it is very powerful. It enlivens us by taking a huge burden away and making us feel light.

However, in the absence of “adult supervision” (or presence of a master) if one hangs around this insight for a while, one feels tempted to conclude in one of these two ways.

  1. One could either conclude that we meaning-making machines in the business of constructing interpretations — OR —
  2. One could conclude that since all interpretations are relative, there is no absolute TRUTH, therefore its all empty and meaningless

The risk with either of these two conclusions is that one feels obligated to prove them.

In an effort to prove that one is a meaning-making machine, one tends to view oneself as a robot driven by strengths, weaknesses, and drives. One’s inquiry becomes limited to discovering the source of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and drives. The source is typically some forgotten incident in one’s past where one made a decision to adopt that strength or weakness or habit. While the discovery of that source can be very powerful, it only provides an explanation as to why one is the way one is. It doesn’t necessarily leave one with access to one’s humanity, which is that one can “now choose differently”.

On the other hand, if one has concluded that life is empty and meaningless; one may feel obligated to prove it. In an effort to prove that it’s all empty and meaningless, one tends to get give up on everything in an effort to show that it is all meaningless. Typically, one cultivates a nihilistic attitude towards life and goes about living life by stripping away any shred of significance that the rest of humanity ascribes to it. This kind of attitude, as you can imagine, causes a lot of concern to other people; which could potentially reflect back on oneself.

For me, both are valid. It is valid that we are meaning-making machines. It is also valid that life is empty and meaningless. However, I wouldn’t risk limiting myself to them as conclusions.

What fascinates me about existentialism is that while it includes these two insights, it is not interested in exploring it too much. To put in other words, these two insights (or conclusions) are not the key takeaways of existentialism. At best they are initial few stations in the journey.

Existentialism is mighty interested in Authenticity.

To understand an existentialist’s view of authenticity, we need to understand the following terms

  • Negation
  • Facticity
  • Freedom
  • Transcendence

Negation is, according to existentialists, the fundamental nature of consciousness. They say that consciousness comes into being by negating or more specifically by positing lacks. Negation is consciousness’s way of bringing to being all the various phenomena in the world. For instance:

  • The negations “not here” & “not there” gives rise to the phenomenon of space
  • The negations “no longer” & “not yet” gives rise to the phenomenon of time
  • The negations “not this” & “not that” gives rise to the phenomenon of objects (both concrete and abstract objects)

An existentialist would say that as a human being, your world is completely defined by the specific negations or the specific lacks you posit. For example: suppose you went to a cafe to meet your date. When you walked into the cafe, you find that your date has not yet arrived. Until she shows up, the whole cafe exists for you in the backdrop of the non-presence of your date. The cafe doesn’t exist for you as a space for social meetups with all its chaos, fine coffee aroma, glitter, lights and so on. It exists for you as my-date-is-not-here. Sure, Shah Rukh Khan is also absent in the cafe. But SRK is not absent in the cafe as much as your date is absent in the cafe. Your thoughts, mood, emotions, and actions are all consistent with that negation. Do you get the picture? Your dates’ absence is literally “the negation” that constructs your experience of the cafe. SRK’s absence may not even bother you.

Another example: when you move into a new job, your entire life experience is given by the negation “this new job is not like my old job.” Yet another example: while you are driving from Bangalore to say Mysore, the entire journey exists for you as “not Mysore.” I am sure you get the picture by now.

Facticity is a sum total of all those aspects of you that are fixed, static and essentially unchangeable. While one’s facticity can be understood newly, they essentially remain unchangeable. In India, we have always used the word Karma to refer to this. Example:

  • One’s past is fixed, static and unchangeable. Therefore, it is one’s facticity.
  • One’s body is facticity. Yes, the body “grows”. It changes size, shape, color, strength, etc. But one can never ever possess a “non-human body”. Nor can one possess another person’s body. So, one’s human body together with all its faculties and processes is one’s facticity.
  • One’s current situation is also static, fixed and essentially unchangeable. Therefore, it is also one’s facticity.

Another way to look at facticity is like this: It is whatever fixed, static or unchangeable givens that consciousness has to negate in order to be.

Freedom is an essential aspect of consciousness’s nature. The nature of consciousness is to negate the in-itself (or in the case of human beings, facticity). It is constantly negating, simply because that’s the nature of consciousness. It is not the capacity of consciousness to negate, it is its nature. If it were capacity, then we could all work at becoming better or worse in negating. But we cannot “improve” our nature to negate. We are simply negating. We can only expand our awareness of “how we negate”.

It is because we are constantly negating our facticity, we are never ever simply stuck with it. We can never ever simply coincide with our facticity because we are always negating it. By the very act of negation, we find ourselves a little outside of our facticity (never in total coincidence with it).

It is because we are never simply stuck with our facticity, we are free. If we had no choice but to simply be our facticity, we would have not been free. Since it is our nature to negate, we are free. Existentialists say that we are “condemned to be free.” In fact, many times we find ourselves unable to come to terms with our absolute freedom, which is why we slip into inauthenticity. More on that later.

Transcendence is the name given to the kind of choices we make to negate our facticity. It is the process by which we exercise our freedom to negate our facticity and, in the process always be slightly outside of our facticity. Without freedom and transcendence, we would have coincided with our facticity and essentially been stuck with it.

Now that we know a bit about facticity, freedom, and transcendence; we can look at the existentialist’s view of authenticity.

Existentialists assert that whether we are aware of it or not, we will always have facticity, freedom, and transcendence. These three are givens for human beings.

What is not given, or obvious, or not in human nature and what is totally worth celebrating about in people is this attitude or capacity that people can work on called authenticity.

Authenticity is all about willingly owning up our facticity, freedom and transcendence. It is all about being human; unapologetically. Authenticity is living a bold life

  • where we willingly and wholeheartedly own up our facticity (or karma) and call it ours, whether we caused it or were dealt with it,
  • where we willingly and wholeheartedly take notice of the fact that we are essentially free and we leverage that freedom,
  • where we willingly and wholeheartedly leverage our nature to transcend by getting creative in our choices, never limiting ourselves to a set of known or safe choices and
  • where we willingly and wholeheartedly assume complete ownership of the all conscious and unconscious choices we make and accept the consequences of those choices

This “willingness and wholeheartedness” is called responsibility. While facticity, freedom, and transcendence are givens; responsibility has to be generated. This kind of responsibility can never be fixed or assigned by another. It has to always be self-generated. Even if it got fixed or assigned somehow, it won’t generate the kind of power and freedom that self-generated responsibility can muster.

Authenticity is all about generating that responsibility. 

Responsibility towards what?

Towards our facticity, our freedom, and our transcendence.

As you can imagine, it is really hard to comprehend “what authenticity is” without honestly examining “what authenticity is not.” Existentialists love to talk about inauthenticity or bad-faith in an effort to help people expand on their being authentic.

Inauthenticity refers to modes of being and living that has us relinquish our responsibility towards our facticity AND/OR freedom AND/OR transcendence. 

  • I am inauthentic if I do not willingly and wholeheartedly own up my facticity. If I live as if my facticity is not “mine”, then I am inauthentic. You see I can only transcend facticity that is “mine”. I cannot transcend another’s facticity or facticity that I claim to be “not mine”. The more I resist my own facticity OR disown it, the less power I have to transcend it. Therefore, I slip into inauthenticity. Example:
    • I am inauthentic if I go out and buy an expensive car that I clearly cannot afford, simply because my friend bought it. It is fine to say that I am going to now work towards generating the required resources to buy that car and actually go about making an honest effort at that. However, buying that new expensive car by taking huge loans beyond my means simply because my friend bought it is inauthentic. I am inauthentic because I am transcending my friend’s facticity and not my own facticity, which facticity includes the fact that I cannot currently afford it.
    • Suppose I win the election and become PM, I am inauthentic if I don’t behave like one and leverage the powers of PM to fulfill the promises made to my voters. I am inauthentic if I still behave like that common man that I used to be before being elected as PM and refuse to take responsibility that comes along with being a PM.
    • Even after marriage, many men continue to behave as if they are still a boyfriend or single. Just to keep the gender balance, I got to mention that many women continue to live as if they are single even after they get married.
    • It is inauthentic if I choose a course of transcendence in the face of an assumed or imaginary facticity. I have seen many founders of small startups who behave as if they are running a multi-billion-dollar unicorn. They are clearly transcending an imaginary facticity in which they find themselves CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company.
  • I am inauthentic if do not willingly and wholeheartedly own up my freedom. If I live my life as if I am stuck with my facticity, that’s inauthentic. People identifying too much with their past OR their bodies OR their current situation are inauthentic. Example:
    • I am inauthentic if I live, even in my 40s, my past as having failed the JEE exam and thereby failed to get into any IIT.
    • I am inauthentic if I identify too much with my body, its appearance or lack of it.
    • Suppose I win the election and become PM, I am inauthentic if I identify too much with my “current situation” as PM and live as if who I am is “Prime Minister”. As you can imagine, people who live that way will find it really hard to step into the role of former-PM once their term is complete.
  • I am inauthentic if I do not willingly and wholeheartedly own up my transcendence. We are all creatures of habit. For decades we have cultured habits that keep us limited to certain automatic responses. We personally developed some habits and inherited others from our upbringing, culture, and society. Believing that we cannot come up with any response other than those that we are habituated with is inauthentic.
    • For instance, it is inauthentic to say that I cannot sleep without watching some TV. If I did say that, I am saying that I have no choice but to watch TV before sleeping. That I am somehow this automaton OR robot that is programmed to be that way.
    • Men who lust after women are inauthentic when they say that they can’t help it.
    • People who are compulsive shoppers are inauthentic if they say that they can’t help it.

Personally, I have found myself exceedingly inauthentic ever since I understood authenticity as explained above. It was rather depressing for a while. In one of his books on existentialism, author Gary Cox says that one can never ever simply be authentic. In fact, being an authentic-thing is inauthentic. So the idea here is not to be a “perfect authentic person”. The idea is to progress towards authenticity and experience being alive and human.

Between perfection and progress, I personally prefer progress. It “tastes” better. Perfection is stressful, progress is buoyant.

Looking at life through the lens offered by the question “Am I authentic?

There are massive literature, self-help methodologies and programs about “how to live a good life” from a moral, ethical and legal point of view. Existentialism offers a unique opportunity to look at ourselves, not from the lens offered by “good vs bad” OR “moral vs immoral” OR “ethical vs unethical” OR “legal vs illegal”.

The study of existentialism offers us a chance to look at ourselves through the lens offered by “authentic vs inauthentic”. Being authentic is not good, nor is it bad. Authentic behavior sometimes can come off as really bad behavior. In fact, authenticity can really be annoying to some people. Inauthentic behavior can sometimes come off as really noble and good behavior.

For instance, as noble as it is for a man to say, “I am the breadwinner and provider of my family”, it is totally inauthentic for him to live as if he has no option but to be a breadwinner and provider. An existentialist would say that this man has to freely and ongoingly accept responsibility for choosing to be a breadwinner and provider for his family and not live as if he is a breadwinner-and-provider-thing who has an obligation to be so. He has to also freely and ongoingly accept responsibility for the repercussions of that choice.

Similarly, as bad it may seem, it is totally authentic for a woman to choose to not be in a relationship anymore as long as she is willing to take responsibility for the consequences of her action.

So, you see authenticity is not about good or bad, morality, ethics and legality. It is simply about willingly owning up our humanity and living life unapologetically.

It is important to remember that authenticity is a mountain with no top, therefore one need not be bogged down by the notion that one needs to become authentic all at once. As mentioned before; being an authentic-thing is inauthentic. Therefore, there is no point in pursuing perfect authenticity. Every time we take responsibility for our facticity, freedom, and transcendence; we feel more alive than before. That sense of aliveness is what’s so special about striving to live an authentic life.

It is not enough to live an authentic life in isolation or silence, it is important to share from it as well. I personally feel that when we narrate stories about our own life through the perspective offered by “authenticity vs inauthenticity”, we come in touch with our own humanity and live powerfully. We could also be an inspiration for others to accept their own humanity and live powerfully.

For instance, rather than saying – “I just realized: my whole life I hated my body and its lack of good appearance. I had to go through a lot of embarrassment in my life because of how ugly I look. I have now learned how to dress up better and deal with it, but my ugliness still haunts me.”

Rather than saying it like that, one could say: “My body and its appearance (or lack of it) is a facticity that I must take complete ownership of as an authentic human being. I notice how hard it is to choose options with respect to my appearance and my body unless I own it up as mine. When I say that my body is my body, I find new levels of freedom in choosing how I want to present it to the world.”

See the difference? The first one is very moral. It’s all about a good attitude or bad attitude or being a victim of bad-body. The second one celebrates a human being’s capacity to make an existential choice in the face of his facticity.

Update 10th Nov 2017: In the most recent interview, actor Vidya Balan says this about her body: ” I spent a large part of my life dismissing and rejecting, and being sorry about my body. And then I realized that there is no end to it…. so I decided to live in this body and embrace it.” Isn’t this very authentic? It is far more authentic than what most other people end up saying (and doing) about their bodies with an overly strict diet and exercise routines. Read her whole interview here.

I feel that it is about time we all focused on living an authentic life rather than living a good life. I also feel that it is time we all focused on narrating the story of our lives from the lens offered by “am I authentic?”; rather than narrate it with all the romanticism and heroism that we have been doing thus far.

What do you think?