The lure of inauthenticity

or ‘Sirens and Tricksters, enemies and teachers’

Not being authentic is very appealing. It must have its merits, otherwise why would we all do it? Inauthenticity shows up in so many ways. White lies are a simple and obvious example. And white lies, by their nature, are easy to justify. Actually we justify white lies on moral grounds. It’s not just that we claim they don’t really hurt anyone. We even go so far as to suggest they increase the quality of life, help everyone save face, feel more comfortable, and avoid needless pain or embarrassment. We also point out that ‘nobody will know anyway’.

The government adviser

I once was in a meeting with a government adviser who was helping a colleague and myself plan some international work. I had prematurely set up a meeting in a foreign country with a contact only to realise that we would not be ready to take negotiations to the next stage as we were unclear what we wanted. The adviser, without a moment’s hesitation, said, “I would just lie to them. Just say you won’t be in the country at that time after all.” (It wasn’t true. My colleague was going there anyway.) “They’ll never know.” Once upon a time, I would have followed that advice quite happily, especially given its source. A government adviser, suggesting a white lie? What more authoritative endorsement could I wish for? I was shocked, though, and immediately understood that I did not want any more dealings with this adviser. I did my own face-saving exercise at that point. I didn’t want to criticise her, or take this on as an issue between us, as I felt this would then hijack my time. So I said that I would prefer not to say something to someone that was not true, was sure there was another, gracious way to withdraw from the scheduled meeting, and that I didn’t necessarily see it as a bad thing to admit my error of judgement anyway. The adviser suggested that this would not be a wise political move, which reminded me of how so often inauthenticity holds within it an unrevealed measure of desire to control and manage a situation towards one’s own personal ends. As it was, I told my foreign contact the truth, and she was fine about it, so we kept on good terms. Not that I believe that particular outcome as justifying the means, and outcome that some might put down to luck anyway. Authenticity must be its own justification, or it’s not really authenticity, but an expedient tactic to serve some other priority.

Inauthenticity is chosen because of the belief it will make for an easier life, it will ingratiate us with the people we want to find favour with, it helps us avoid looking at uncomfortable truths about ourselves or others, it requires less commitment or courage than authenticity, less risk (but not necessarily less effort). Sometimes it temporarily satisfies a pressing desire, perhaps for approval or a sense of security. We don’t have to grow or change, we don’t have to step into the unknown.

Leaving the riverbed

I wrote earlier that part of the hallmark of authenticity is a preparedness to let go of the known and allow ourselves to countenance the unknown. A hallmark of inauthenticity is that we prefer to stay closer to what we know. This limits our flexibility, but the trade-off is at least the illusion of control. Richard Bach, the writer of the beautiful book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (now there’s a book about authenticity!) wrote another, less well known story called ‘Illusions: adventures of a reluctant messiah’. He tells a parable of some creatures who live on a river bed, and one day, one of them looks longingly up to the river flowing above them, and says to his family and friends, ”I want to go up there, and see what life is like, for I am sure that is where my true destiny lies!” His companions are horrified, and say, “No! That you must never do! If you leave the riverbed, you will be pulled along by the current and you will be dashed across the rocks and will perish!” So the young creature listens to them, and stays on the riverbed; he enjoys the company of the others, but he feels his sorrow and sense of self-betrayal in not following the calling of the river. And so one day, without warning the others, he lets go his grip on the floor of the riverbed, and rises into the current. Sure enough, as his people had predicted, he is thrown and dashed across the rocks, receiving cuts and bruises as he goes. He knows his life is in peril, but he does not want to betray his destiny and reach for the safety of the riverbed. And then, suddenly he realises that he is rising higher in the current, away from the sharp stones and obstacles, and as he rises, he knows that he is now flowing fast along with the current, watching the riverbed pass swiftly below him. And the other creatures look up and cry, “See, there is a magnificent creature flying above us, come to save us. Surely, it is the messiah!” But the young creature can no longer hear them, and they cannot see it is their old companion, and soon he is out of sight, flowing ever faster and joyfully towards the ocean.

Authenticity can sometimes feel a lonely path. Inauthenticity often takes us towards the semblance of belonging. Authenticity, as a philosophical movement embraced by existentialists such as Sartre, was about the urge towards honouring one’s own inner being in a way that often appeared to go against cultural norms. It was not counter-culture for the sake of it (though there was some of that in the hippy lifestyle of the 60s and after). It was the recognition that to be authentic one may well need to fall out of step with the prevailing culture, whether this was the wider society, one’s own family or workplace. One of the great attractions of inauthenticity is that it does not upset the status quo of the setting we find ourselves in. It’s safe. The downside of authenticity was explored in existentialist novels, where a central character would knowingly pursue what was popularly acceptable, thereby destroying any sense of personal meaning for them. Those who followed their own path, like Anitgone in Anouilh’s play, or Camus’ Stranger ended up dead, albeit at with a vestige of a sense of a life lived with some meaning.

And this is the terror that authenticity can evoke in us. The irony is that while being inauthentic can feel like a living death, authenticity threatens its own kind of death – death of everything we thought we knew, psychic death of the person we thought we were, or death of the lifestyle we hold dear.

The death walk

Arnold Mindell writes about the idea of the ‘death walk’ in The Shaman’s Body. He tells of a South American tribe that accuses a member of wrongdoing. Death would come if the man walked through the centre of the tribe and one of their spears was released on him. If no spear was thrown, or if he survived any spears that were thrown, he was absolved of any guilt. In the Christian bible (John 8), Jesus suggests to an angry crowd intent on stoning a woman to death, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” The people’s conscience is awakened, no stone is thrown and the woman survives. In a similar way, one individual choosing the death walk of authenticity can raise the awareness of those around them, and inspire their own greater authenticity (though there are no guarantees).

A variant of this is in a tale told in Lila: an enquiry into morals by Robert Pirsig (sequel to his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). A brujo (folk magician) of the Pueblo Zuni in new Mexico offends the conventions of his people; he is not executed, but he is expelled from his community. Years later, the tribe is in crisis, in danger of disappearing under the power of the white peoples. The brujo turns out to be the only one who understands the white people’s ways, and is recalled to save the day, eventually becoming their new chief. Again, the moral of this story is not that the end (the brujo’s vindication) justifies the means – in this case, ‘being who are you brings acceptance if you wait long enough’. But the brujo does follow his own path, bringing what he knows, and it is his very uniqueness that is ultimately required for both the survival of the tribe, and for its evolution.

A house of cards

When authenticity happens, when the truth is dismissed, or not given a fair hearing, eventually the imbalance that this creates must be righted. C S Lewis, the Christian writer, kept an intimate journal after the death of his wife by cancer (A Grief Observed). He discovered that, for all his public lecturing, there were aspects of his ‘faith in God’ that turned out to be a “house of cards” that he had built. He had fooled himself that this faith was more secure and committed than it really was. He had been inauthentic, dishonest to himself. It was therefore inevitable that at some point this would become evident, and he would have to face the consequences of his avoiding the truth about himself. Inauthenticity (which is sometimes avoiding truth about ourselves) can paper over cracks, and make surface deep improvements, but the cracks nevertheless remain, and can grow to become major structural hazards outside our awareness until it is too late.

Sirens and Odysseus

So why do we do it? Aversion to the death walk, certainly, but also attraction to something else. While being authentic seems to meet our needs at soul level, inauthenticity seems to pander to our appetites. In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Circe warns Odysseus against the wiles of the Sirens, whose voices lure unsuspecting sailors to their death on treacherous rocks. Odysseus is advised to stop his crew’s ears with wax so they will not hear the Sirens’ irresistible song. Odysseus can listen only if his men tie him securely to the mast of his ship when they sail near the Sirens’ shores. Odysseus is driven almost mad by desire when hearing their song, but luckily is unable to persuade his men to release him at the moment of greatest peril, and so they survive to complete their voyage. Surviving moments of temptation takes awareness and discipline. Odysseus represents the consciousness that is sufficiently evolved that it can know its appetites, even satisfy them to a certain degree, but not be consumed by them, or deflected from what is the central and higher purpose – the Highest Good.

The Trickster

At one time in my life, I kept getting myself into unhappy situations, as it happens, around money, but it could have been any number of themes. The mechanism always plays itself out in the same way, whatever the context.

A wise soul drew my attention to how these situations kept arising. She held up the mirror to my behaviour. Each time, I found myself ‘suddenly’ in a terrible predicament, trapped on the rocks, where I could not see how I had fallen into them, or how to get out of them – well and truly ‘tricked’. Despite the apparent unceremonious suddenness of each predicament, I was also aware that each had in fact developed slowly, by almost imperceptible steps. Lesley pointed out to me that on such occasions, we can always track back and find a moment, usually almost right near the beginning, when we had a ‘felt sense’ that something was not quite as it should be. Thinking back on it now, I realise that my own daemonion was trying to get my attention and tell me something, but I just wasn’t prepared to listen. I believe we all have this sense, those moments. Then, what we do, at the pivotal moment, is brush aside that hesitation, so the necessary question never gets formed, and the necessary truth does not get named. We pretend to ourselves that it was nothing, that it doesn’t matter. And thereby we seal our fate.

Lesley referred to this as ‘Trickster energy’. The Trickster is an archetypal figure that can be found in folklore around the world, mischievous and unpredictable. He is the Norse god Loki (remember the Jim Carrey film, Mask?), Brer Rabbit, Mercury (Roman) and Hermes (Greek), Coyote and Raven from Native American tradition. In these stories the Trickster outwits the other characters. We can make the mistake in our own lives of deciding that the messes we get into are of somebody else’s making, the work of somebody becoming the Trickster against us (whether by design or sheer incompetence). However, the authentic approach is to recognise our own hand in the situation, our own authorship. We have our own internal Trickster that tricks us.

That Trickster, the siren voice, knows exactly where our weaknesses are, what will pull us off the path, and distract us from what is really important. When we do the post mortem and analyse when precisely we made that decision, and took the lazier option, we can always identify the carrot or stick the Trickster used. Ancient Native American tradition understands this, and suggests that even our enemies become our teachers when we are prepared to recognise how we hand our power to them. We might see enemies in other people, in our appetites and addictions, in our fears; all of them can be our teachers. The Heyoka is a sacred figure amongst the Native Americans, given licence to do the outrageous, upset the order of things, in order to help people see themselves more honestly and clearly.

Sheldon Kopp wrote a book about the tricks we play on ourselves, and how we hand our power to others. He called it, If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him, meaning that we must always take responsibility for ourselves; we can never pretend that someone or something else holds the authority for our experience or decisions, and never try to hand our authority over to anyone. Authenticity brings with it response-ability, meaning that we can always choose how we respond. As Susan Scott says in Fierce Conversations, “Authenticity is not something you have; it is something you choose.” Whether we regard that as a burden, or as a mark of true freedom and aliveness is up to us.