A Quest for Authenticity

Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

“I’m not different for the sake of being different, only for the desperate sake of being myself. I can’t join your gang: you’d think I was a phony and I’d know it.”
– Vivian Stanshall

The quest for authenticity seems to be never-ending and ever-changing. We strive for authenticity as a state of enlightenment until, that is, it calls attention to the ways that we are different, unconventional, unlike the rest. And then we avoid it like the plague.

Given our love-hate relationship with authenticity, or rather its pursued-but-feared dichotomy, a few questions come to mind. For instance, how do we find authenticity? How do we nurture it once found? And, how do we cultivate authenticity in a positive and lasting way?

Establishing authenticity sometimes seems like a double-edged sword to me, one that we are wielding on ourselves most of the time. When we stand with the crowd, quietly nestled into the masses without drawing attention to ourselves, we secretly admire the bravery of the maverick who is blissfully free to chart his own course. But then when we are presented with an opportunity to stake claim to our authenticity, we seek ways to diminish our differences and blend in with the crowd, fearful of the judgment that might come when the spotlight is on us.

But maintaining authenticity need not mean that one must always be alone or separate, standing on the outside. In fact, once we have affirmed our authenticity, we are often able to find the unconditional support, commiseration, and approval that we sought in the first place – it just might not be in places we had expected. (For a terrific example of unconditional support in surprising places, check out Cindy Reed’s post at The Reedster Speaks, in which she generously extends her support to a fellow blogger, and receives an abundance of fabulously positive comments in return.)

For me, establishing an authentic faith is a top priority and one that has led me down a long, windy path of difficult realizations, confusing questions, surprising friendships, meaningful relationships, and a deeper understanding of myself. Having been raised in a Christian family (Catholicism to be exact), when I first realized that I was not a Christian, I was scared, frustrated, and angry. I was shaken to my core. Compounding my internal faith struggles was an intense fear of being ostracized. Among my family and friends who are Christians, I feared being an outcast who attends some strange, hippy church (in reality it’s a Unitarian Universalist church and not that strange at all). Among my irreligious and non-church-going friends, I fear that I am outcast of another kind, perceived as some kind of religious zealot, which I am sincerely not.

My trepidations about publicly acknowledging my faith – my authentic faith – has resulted in a disregard for this vital component of my life on a fundamental level. I have shied away from writing about my faith here, despite the fact that I write about almost every other aspect of my life on this blog, and I quietly avoid conversations about religion and faith, afraid that I will be judged for my faith from both sides of the religious divide. But my faith is part of who I am, and to deny it or discount it, is to deny and discount me. By allowing the fear of what others might think – which may or may not be true – is unfair not only to me, but to them as well since I am in no position to speculate about any potential judgments they might hold.

Certainly there are – and always will be – those who judge, criticize, and label. But when we kowtow to the needs of others to label us and categorize us and place us neatly into little boxes that fit their definitions, we are only hurting ourselves by falling victim to a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. We become who they see or, conversely, we vigorously rebel against their conventional definitions, both of which run the risk of severing us from our genuine authenticity.

“That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity,
you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something.”
– Meredith Monk

A quest for authenticity sometimes means that we need to silence our own damaging internal voices. Quite honestly, we are often our own worst critic and an irrational one at that. The lies we tell ourselves in order to perpetuate an ideal can become so believable that, before long, we aren’t even aware of our own inconsistencies and fabrications.

When I first met my husband, I was coming out of the bowels of an eating disorder and in the beginning stages of a recovery process that endured not for months, but years. A victim to my own unhealthy habits, I justified my denial of certain “prohibited” foods with an alleged dislike for certain foods. For the first five years of our relationship, I avoided certain foods, like cheese, emphatically insisting that, well, I just didn’t like cheese. Truth be told, I love cheese. I mean, who doesn’t? Hand me a creamy Brie or a salty Pecorino and I can instantly start salivating. My husband and I joke about this now (most of the time) but, at the time, the stories that I told myself were so believable that authenticity didn’t stand a chance within the confines of my own feeble psyche. I became so good at telling myself stories about a perceived truth that I couldn’t hear the genuine realities. My internal lies facilitated unhealthy eating habits, perpetuated an unrealistic body image, and hindered my recovery.

By learning to listen to my internal voice and acknowledge both what I am and what I am not, I have refined a self-awareness that has improved my relationships and granted me the permission to get to know the real me. I can unabashedly be who I am – a fabulously imperfect, ever-changing work-in-progress.

Authenticity, however, does not grant carte blanche to act unkindly or rudely. There is no “get out of jail free card” to proselytize and judge others in the name of your own authenticity. Rather, authenticity can only thrive in an environment that values decency, civility, and a basic level of respect.

So, to all of the nonconformists out there, who bravely maintain authenticity, I commend your courage to boldly chart your own course and I admire your patience to astutely listen to your internal voice in the first place.

And to all those struggling to find and maintain authenticity, know that it is never too late. You can choose to become a story that was created for you, the person that you were told you should be. Or you can choose to be the person you truly are and make your own story.

“Being authentic is the ability to be true to oneself. Living an authentic life requires the ability to be true to our own wants, needs and desires and not live our lives by the opinion of others. Being authentic is the ability to make self-honoring choices and stand firmly in who we are in our core. Being true to ourselves gives us the insight and compassion to see others for who they are, not who we expect them to be. It frees us up from the judgment of ourselves and others and it gives others the freedom to be themselves as well.”

~ Victoria J. Reynolds

This post is part of the weekly Photo Inspiration Challenge.  Special thanks to Angie McMonigal Photography for her fabulous photos.  Make sure to visit her website or facebook page.

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