For most middle-class people, things are pretty good. We may be dissatisfied with the state of the world, but our personal lives are fairly in order. We have loving people around us; we belong to a fairly stable community composed of a stable job, workmates or church people who are harmless and generally beneficial. We will even likely be in stable housing, and although there is some future uncertainty, things look promising. But we still feel a little uneasy.
What happens when we are 95% there? Often we can turn to the advice of “pop culture” which serves to legitimize the perspectives we have about ourselves. We read or watch it and respond with a “yeah, that’s true… that’s me!” We feel good about ourselves and we feel like we can tell a story about ourselves that seems real, attractive, and that has some depth. There are definitely some benefits of consuming such pop culture. One can identify spiritual, practical, psychological and identity benefits. But what happens when such beneficial advice doesn’t tell us the whole story? What happens when the information we have read misses something that is necessary to the general idea?
Encountering the benefits and asking questions happened when recently reading the article: “Real is Rare” (April 22, 2020), on the website: higherperspectives.com. Let’s be clear, this is a good bit of pop culture, as far as that goes. It is thoughtful, honest, well-written, brief (as is necessary for the genre), and presents a necessary perspective about an idea that is core to its readers. It talks about authenticity, something to which most of the readers will aspire, and offers some clarity about what that aspiration might look like in practice. So I want to look into it a little deeper, and because I have some affinity for the topic and for the writing of the article, this article will mirror its basic structure, and expand on its length, including engaging with its “7 traits of truly authentic people.”
“Actual” Authentic People
“Real is Rare” attempts to define what an authentic person actually is. The list of characteristics outlined include such platitudes as not “caring about trends”, “dancing to the beat of their own drum instead of following the crowd”, ‘being the same person in different situations or with different people’, and being “genuine and original”. According to “Real is Rare”, two reasons for being inauthentic are: 1) fear of others’ opinions, or 2) “self-gain” which is illustrated by the traits of manipulation or sales tactics. Framing the idea of authenticity this way seems common-sense, but only if one completely understands and buys into the idea of “dancing to the beat of one’s own drum”, or is clear about what “not caring about trends” means, knows for certain what “being the same person in different situations” means, or can functionally tap into something that is “genuine and original”. Higher Perspectives’ readers will, in their cynical moods, likely consider such states of originality or being unconcerned about trends as rarely possible, if they are possible at all. By framing this necessary discussion so idiomatically, the unnamed author does more to raise questions than to settle them. If you are cynical of such frustrated ideals, you may benefit from the following, and hopefully it will lead you to a more optimistic standpoint, one that is both more clear and more hopeful that authenticity is, in fact, plausible and beneficial to ourselves and our world.
Seven Traits: 1. Indulge in your curiosities
The original article exhorts its readers to ‘stay curious about others and self’, encouraging both a kind of skeptical attitude towards “one and only truth”, and also not following blindly what friends and family (whom I like to call “significant others”) believe. It encourages the reader to do “your own research.” Can we consider this approach as an accumulated and refined skill set which helps us differentiate ourselves from our significant others?
We may be tempted to think that “Real is Rare” is suggesting that significant other relationships have built-in animosity. I don’t believe it is. However, the crucial point of curiosity and differentiation is so little explored. If we are to be curious, to research our own answers, or to differ with our significant others, on what basis can we do so authentically? That is, what is it about self-research, curiosity, and differentiation that contributes substantially to authenticity?
One may see these aspects of curiosities to be self-evident, especially if “following the beat of your own drum” is self-explanatory. But for many of us the metaphor isn’t self-explanatory and needs to be explored. Let’s consider the admittedly extreme but plausible examples where one indulges curiosities into unmediated heroin use, or regular and unprotected extra-marital sex. Certainly, either of these practices would differentiate, if not ostracize, one from the community of significant others, could feasibly be backed up by “self research” and could be done so under the name of authenticity, especially by someone who is practicing these activities. Such differentiating, researched, and so-called “authentic” practices can lead not only to isolation, but also to rather artificial consequences, which are the very opposite of what an authentic individual might reasonably do.
Let’s consider the metaphor of “following the beat of your own drum.” You may never have listened to someone drumming a standard rock and roll drum set, but it is much less musical than when the drum is playing together with a band. Even the greatest of rock drummers, such as John Bonham [from “Led Zeppelin”] or Niel Peart [from “Rush”], can only maintain the drum solo so long until they have to flow back into the piece of music. If the metaphor of “Real is Rare” is to make sense, it has to tell the whole story. The so-called authentic person may be so, but in name only; in no way could he be so admired or honored unless he worked with the band. In this metaphor, the band is the community of significant others that the original article only names as the background to an authentic person, but fails to seriously consider.
This is not pushing the metaphor too far. If we are to follow the beat of our own drum, what does this mean for the guitar player, the lead singer, or the bass player? To explore this further, see Niel Peart talking about this when he is talking about “paying attention to phrasing”. (Interestingly, it is Peart who, inspired by the famed individualist Ayn Rand, writes the nuanced, “One must put up barriers To keep oneself intact”, and “I can’t pretend a stranger Is a long-awaited friend” in the same video where Peart teaches how to do the solo in the song, Limelight). In Limelight Rush explores what we are calling “authenticity” with incredible sensitivity. But also look at Polyphonic’s video about John Bonham, which says (at the 3:15 mark), “…but to truly appreciate John Bonham’s greatness, we need to look at the way he worked with his band.” One way to say this is to say that there is a horizontal community to which a person must refer in order to be identified as authentic. The band is the horizon that situates the brilliance of the drummer.
The Polyphonic video explains that Bonham manifests a kind of innovation surely meant by Higher Perspective’s use of being “genuine and original.” The Polyphonic video also explains the greatness of Bonham in his adaptation of a variety of influences from jazz drummers like Gene Kruppa and Buddy Rich, and funk like the drumming used by James Brown. In other words, excellent drummers, like “truly authentic” people, will innovate from great and already existing models – even if those models lived and acted in different contexts. “Real is Rare” doesn’t mention this, but given that it seeks to outline 7 traits of truly authentic people, it has some obligation to distinguish those who are actually authentic from those who are in name only. Thus, there must also be a kind of vertical community (a history of models of authenticity, or great drummers) which offers a background which allows us to accurately identify the difference between someone who actually is authentic and one who merely calls himself authentic. We thus need to have some criteria for distinguishing what actually counts as authentic, and isn’t only nominally so.
Seven Traits: 2. Speak your mind
“Real is Rare” advocates that we need to speak our truths and be heard. It does not mean that we do that always, but rather in a “space where [one] can honestly and openly communicate.” It further suggests that such spaces can be provided by friends or support groups.
Here, Higher Perspective employs the concept of horizontal community, without actually spelling out what that actually means for authenticity. Essentially, the article is correct, but it needs to articulate what it means by “space”. In order to speak our mind and feel recognized, we must exist in a space of honesty and open communication. Other than a confession booth (and possibly even there), I cannot imagine a place like this that exists without distortion. What does this space look like? Many of those who are nominally authentic will not have such a space. To be as empathetic as possible, such a place must have some type of quasi-religious connotation, i.e. such a space is sacred and in need of consistent preservation and investment. If an authentic person is going to have her own such sacred space, she will indeed be required to maintain it. And that requires cooperative work, not simply focused on mutuality, but requiring it. Those nominally authentic persons, who “do not follow blindly what friends or family believe” will have trouble existing in a space that requires mutuality because of the instinct to “not follow blindly”. In other words, it is absolutely necessary that such a sacred space be a shared experience, or it is no sacred space at all. And it is this very requirement which will be the harshest reality for nominally authentic people. The communal nature of the sacred space is not merely central to its very existence, but the individual’s participation in the sacred space is also communal in its constitution. If such a sacred space is at the core of what it means to be authentic, then authentic human beings, as Marx has intimated, are truly “social” animals. Being authentic then requires the quasi-religious presence of others, most notably those significant others such as friends, support groups, and families.
So in addition to a more refined awareness of vertical and horizontal communities that constitute authenticity, we can now add the concept of the presence of significant others.
Seven Traits: 3. Spend time alone
“Real is Rare” advocates spending time alone to become aware of “your feelings, your thoughts and your beliefs”. It suggests taking walks and meditating. While I also suggest spending time alone, the point is severely under explained by Higher Perspectives, especially for the nominally authentic.
What of the lonely person who is suicidal? Couldn’t spending time alone be confused with being forcibly isolated and lonely? What of the person who doesn’t know how to meditate? Wouldn’t they, in fact, be tempted to all kinds of distractions that are easily accessible, such as time-killing TV, social media, and pornography – or the use of drugs to “facilitate” altered consciousness? All of these things have, in fact, led to remarkably inauthentic activity, and are plausible inclusions to the axiom to spend time alone.
Instead, to get to know ourselves, it may be recommended that when meditating, we learn to distinguish our thoughts about ourselves from who we really are. Or, if we are going for walks, that we understand the benefits of this not only includes exercising our bodies and physically relaxing, but also integrating within a natural world to which we belong. The authentic person will use time alone to allow the “busyness” of everything that isn’t us (other people, the incessant pressure of our own thinking, which turns out to be dialogical anyways) to quiet on its own. The nominally authentic person will likely use time alone to inauthentic and artificial pursuits which not only lead to different kinds of pathologies, but that also lead to a state of disquiet and artificiality.
To be clear, spending time alone is a good suggestion. However, without clarification and elaboration, the principle is carelessly offered, with potentially dangerous consequences. Getting to knowing ourselves is an axiom as old as Socrates, and the nominally authentic person can plausibly claim it, but without developing a quiet mind released from worry, getting to know ourselves is more platitude than practicality. As Psalm 23 says: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul…” The restoration of soul is constituted by stillness; the fostering of authenticity is sourced in quiet.
So where does that leave us in regards to being authentic? We need horizontal and vertical communities that provide background, the presence of significant others to facilitate open and honest “mind-speaking”, and we also need the still mind developed in solitude that is unshaken by external noise – whether that noise is the opinion of others or the endlessness of our own thoughts.
Seven Traits: 4. Accept the fact that not everyone will like you and 5. Know what motivates you
“Real is Rare” suggests that we stop trying to get everyone to like us and just be ourselves. Agreed. Especially with the first half. “To be yourself” is so trite, it is almost meaningless. “Be yourself”, “Don’t pretend”, and a whole host of other such suggestions without explanation actually have lost their meaning. But I agree with Higher Perspective’s assertion to not be motivated by pleasing others. Our individual worth is not determined by what someone else says. And that goes if it is both positive or negative. Our individual worth, as an individual, is not determined by the opinion of others who exist outside the sphere of significant others, whether that be in mass society, or on social media. If we are motivated by a need for approval, then our ego can run amok (as the article asserts). However, what really has happened when our ego so runs amok is that we haven’t received the necessary recognition that would have been provided had we properly put ourselves within vertical and horizontal communities, and allowed the presence of significant others. In other words, in addition to a still mind, the presence of significant others, and a background of community, we must also act socially without a need for recognition. It isn’t that we don’t need recognition as nominal individualists may interpret this; it is that recognition is required to be authentic, and that is required from a community of significant others.
Authentic people, then, are not something which accidentally happens. They can appear and, if they do, will be nurtured by more intimate communal relationships than those available in mass society. We necessarily will have intimate relationships with our vertical communities (our heroes, our models of excellence), our horizontal communities (our churches and workplaces), and the presence of significant others (our friends, our spouse / lover, and our families). Authentic people are therefore generated by the existence of such a communal background of intimate relationships which refine and recognize the worth of the authentic person.
The last two traits that “Real is Rare” outlines are not so much a way of identifying authentic individuals (even though that’s how the article presents them), as they are results of the generation of authentic individuals. Seen in this light, Higher Perspective is definitely on to the ways in which we will know we have a refined authenticity in our lives.
Seven traits: 6. Listen to your gut and 7. Never apologize for who you are
The article suggests, “Our bodies are intelligent and can sense when something isn’t right for us.” It is correct. We will recognize authenticity in ourselves when we allow the rhythm of our bodies, connected to the world around us to indicate that we should do one thing or another. People who follow their gut are following a refined intuition which is developed through the steps outlined. However, without a regular practice of living in community, i.e. in the presence of significant others who necessarily contribute to (not dictate) one’s authentic identity, we will have refined intuition which will reliably guide us. “Listening to your gut” is thus different than “following a whim”.
The article also suggests “that we are who we were created to be,” and authentic people will realize this, not only consciously, but also intuitively. It may seem arrogant to not be apologetic for who we are – but being created as we are, we are justified by our relationship with that creator, whether that be “God” or the “Universe”. Moreover, who we are is constituted by the background of solid relationships which situate our authentic selves.
So we are left with a couple of loose ends. First, how do we understand “Rare is Real”? They have clarified that what is written there is a refined opinion. I will concur with that, but moreover, offer this piece as a further refinement of their article, and towards a fuller and “higher perspective” of authenticity. Such an account will lead to a more fruitful set of principles to help us both discern whether a person is authentic or not, and become more authentic ourselves.
Second, we will be more equipped to identify needs in nominally authentic people, which the commentators on the Facebook share of the post encounter as harsh realities. Where an individual has lacked the grounding reality of vertical and horizontal backgrounds of community, and/or the presence of significant others, and/or the sacred space of open and honest conversation (which is very similar to the spaces of confession and repentance), and/or a lack of recognition from those essential relationships, she may indeed lack the requisite grounding authenticity requires. Hence, such a person, even if they claim to be authentic, may only be authentic in name only. Darker and more sinister elements may still be lurking. Whether, as individuals we are secure and strong enough to deal with these harsh elements is up for debate, and there is much at stake. Not only do we encounter nominally authentic persons as potential intimates, but we also can recognize the inauthentic realities within ourselves. Yet a fuller definition of authenticity, undertaken here, may be yet more fully developed, and thus will go a long way to answering that challenge.