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Authenticity to Self: A sure sign of self-centered depravity?

April 30, 2010

A while back, Leah at Whore of All the Earth wrote a post responding to a reader’s email. To one question, she responded:

(2) “If you want some kind of evidence…” I wouldn’t say that I want any evidence of God, at least not the kind of God I presume you’re talking about. I certainly don’t miss the Mormon version of God, a personal being who requires obedience and devotion. I can’t think of anything a God could do to convince me to devote myself to him. I don’t think conceding one’s autonomy to a God (or anyone else) is a healthy way to live, even if that God’s intentions are completely benevolent. I think being centered in one’s self, following one’s own innate desires and motivations (without infringing on the right’s of others, of course) is a more sure path to happiness.

Now, while I have some disagreements with the first part of this answer (namely, I have heard a rather cute and tidy answer to the question, “What would it take to convince you of a god?” — “Hey, I don’t know, but if God is omniscient, then he would know what it would take.” With such omniscience, the god in question would know what it would take not only to convince me of his/her/its existence, but what I would need to worship.)

However, I loved the last part of her answer, and I think that this would play in any case. One must be aware of one’s own innate desires and motivations first and foremost. Trying to refuse or reject these is the surest path to misery. Many of us know from experience.

I got where Leah was coming from, but a reader seemed perturbed.

Even through the invisible channels of cyberspace, I could hear the complexity of the question:

Being centered on one’s self is a more sure path to happiness? Is that a general concensus amongst atheists?

I responded once by comment, and Leah even dedicated a second post to explaining herself (quite adeptly, I believe)

But I wanted to write something here as well. Because this didn’t seem isolated. I was originally incredulous as to why Patrik would even ask something like that…is it such a hostile or foreign idea?

But then, Tim (from LDS & Evangelical Conversations) raised the question via facebook (I hope that’s not off limits? maybe…):

Should a person be “true to themselves” even if they are a jerk, a racist, or a liar?

Oh…

He immediately got several charged answers in response…such as:

It’s what the world would have us believe, “follow your heart”- but we have a different/better guide than ourselves. =)

Emphasis added.

Or:

I tend to think that explaining away behavior as being “true to yourself” is a nice way of saying “I’m not accountable for my actions”.

(Also if I were true to myself I would have used the word asshole in the sentence above. Which would have been offensive. Good thing I have a filter for my true self).

I guess from these few interactions I’m just getting a taste for how different individuals view humanity that leaves a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. (Oh, by the way, Tim made his own thoughts rather clear in a later status update):

[Tim] finds the damage that has been done to individuals by two of our greatest cultural lies “just be happy” and “be true to yourself” to be ironic

I get the sense that, for whatever reason, individuals like Patrik, Tim, or the numerous responders to Tim’s status interpret these phrases only to a particular extent. Being “true to yourself” or being “centered on oneself” prevents and precludes progress or “moral” behavior in critical instances. After all, if people are depraved and sinful beings, then being “themselves” would lead to depraved and sinful actions. Only by denying oneself (e.g., “losing oneself [presumably to gain oneself in Christ, but that’s just because I’m assuming many of the people who say this share the evangelical Christian background])…or in Mormon terms, only by casting off the natural man [who is, after all, an enemy to God]) and adhering to a higher standard other than “the world’s” can we truly progress.

And, to an extent, I can see how they would say that. For example, all you have to look at are human “gut” reactions. People do have gut reactions to lash out in anger, to engage in lustful passions, to be shortsighted rather than seeing the big picture, and to “do me” before helping others.

Yet, I think this is a superficial  (and as a result, much too cynical) look at the gut reactions and internal motivations and values of individuals. In many ways, it’s tough for me to write from the non-cynical perspective about human nature, yet, here I am.

See…I think that just as well as people may have gut reactions to things we would consider imprudent or deleterious (or, in other systems, “immoral” and “evil”), I think we also have gut responses that we can evaluate and recheck on the fly. We know that some things fulfill us. Some things make us feel empty and cold. Some things bring peace and joy. Other things bring misery and internal decay. We know this. What we sometimes fail to do is take account of which things bring which.

I propose that by being more aware of ourselves, we can “follow our nose” to peace and joy. And this will lead us to develop in certain ways. For example, as I wrote earlier, it seems very clear to me that even though I may often have the first inclination to lash out (especially when I perceive that I am Definitely Right and the other person is Definitely A Doo-Doo Head), I know from experience that lashing out escalates the conflict. And it doesn’t even feel good! On the other hand, I know the efficacy of “killing with kindness,” so to speak, both for me and for the other.

So, which is true to myself? Which is authentic? Which is the self-aware action?

I think that, as someone who seeks joy, peace, harmony, and those kinds of things, not lashing out is more authentic.

Nevertheless, Tim asked a further question:

And what if being selfish is something someone finds fulfilling? Should the narcissist go on being true to himself even if he never feels the lack of fulfillment you feel?

I wrote about this before as well (although now that I look at it, when I responded on Facebook, I misread what he was said…but I’ve written what I will say now before [in that last link], so I’ll say it again.)

Quite simply, while I would doubt that the individual would feel perfectly fulfilled from such, if that is the case, then yes. He or she should pursue authenticity, even knowing that s/he will face opposition from the rest of the world, who despises him or her and wishes to kill him or her (identity-wise). Because in the end, the individual MUST live with one person…and that is himself (and all the feelings and deepseated emotional reactions within himself).

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21 Comments
  1. I think virtue is more valuable than authenticity. Hopefully through the pursuit of virtue people will be transformed to be authentically virtuous. But that isn’t the “self” individuals naturally exist in (spend time with my kids for proof).

    The “self” is a malleable thing. It can be molded to love better and more beautiful things. What outside of the “self” calls people beyond lust, anger and selfishness?

  2. I think that true virtue and true authenticity are inseparably connected.

  3. Tim, I’d have to agree with Kullervo that true virtue and true authenticity are inseparably connected.

    When you say, “Hopefully through the pursuit of virtue, people will be transformed to be authentically virtuous.” I’m thinking that we’re just using slightly different terminologies here.

    Let me try to “break down” what you’re saying seems to sound like to me. What it seems to me is this:

    Let’s say the first reaction from someone in a particular situation is to lash out. Is what you’re saying that this is their “authentic” self and that, if the person, were true to themselves, they would indeed lash out? It seems to me that you are saying this is their “natural” self (ok), and therefore, this is their “authentic” self and their “true” self. Since their true self would lash out, you advise that people not be true to themselves.

    Instead, if the person didn’t lash out (being “true to himself”) but responded in charity, that person would come to realize that that produces better results than lashing out would have.

    Is that right so far?

    So, is what you’re saying that “through the pursuit of virtue” (e.g., not lashing out), “people will be transformed so their first reaction will be the virtuous one rather than the lash-out one?”

    I hope this has been somewhat on track.

    What I am saying is this. People need to be attuned to something within to discern virtue from non-virtue. They need to have something by which they can discern it. This *is* within the self. Many people aren’t very aware or attuned to it, though, so they end up doing the nonvirtuous (say — lashing out). This produces predictably undesirable consequences (not only interpersonally…but MORE IMPORTANTLY, within the person himself!), but since the person is not self-aware, they don’t know to change things.

    I am saying that people, when attuned to themselves, can become aware that even though they may have an initial gut reaction in a particular situation — say, to lash out — they also have internal feedback to evaluate: “Hmm…I still feel angry. And they still are clearly angry. Hmm. This isn’t good.”

    I of course believe that it will take time to go from this experiential realization to a time when the first reaction will be to better/more positive action, but I strongly believe that we have to give credit to the fact that there has to be a part of humanity to recognize all of this in the first place.

    It’s because, when I read “Hopefully, through the pursuit of virtue people will be transformed to be authentically virtuous.” and I don’t sense any discernment method that sources back to the self-aware individual, then I can pull up plenty of instances where people pursue what they have been told is “virtue” to their utter internal destruction. I think one of the most visible instances is this absolute witchhunt against homosexuality. And what does it do? It transforms, but it transforms people into self-loathing individuals who have learned to villify love itself, because it’s directed to the wrong people.

    If that is what pursuing virtue is about, I’d rather pursue vice.

  4. I have this idea that there are two somewhat contradictory ideals to follow:

    1. Be true to yourself.
    2. Be better than yourself.

    Maybe I could sum that up by saying: Be true to your best self.

    I don’t know.

  5. Is it possible to act in any way that is not in some way “authentic to oneself”? I mean, even if you say, like Tim, that your highest goal should be to pursue virtue, where does that come from but the self? Isn’t it the self that desires virtue?

  6. Daniel,

    but that’s the thing! When you combine the two as “be true to your best self,” I don’t think that’s contradictory at all. ESPECIALLY when “be true to yourself” (when NOT linked to “be better with yourself”) will not be satisfying. I think it is satisfying for people to improve themselves.

    I think the issue is that many times, people have different ideas about what needs improving, and people may not agree with others that they should try “improving” in other ways.

    John GW:

    here’s how…let’s say your self does not desire virtue in any way, and never will. (In fact, we don’t need to make this so…big. Let’s just pick ONE virtue and say that your “self” doesn’t desire it. After all, many people don’t have problems with every “vice”. Just a few, one here or one there that’s really pervasive in their life.)

    The question here is: be authentic (which would authentically include the “vice”)…or pursue virtue even though it is miserable, even though it makes you feel like you are lying to yourself, killing who you are, living a lie, selling out, etc.,

    I would argue that the self *does* desire virtue. That is why, when we do bad things, unless we aren’t paying attention to our internal reactions (which does happen), we will realize that doing bad things feel…well…bad. It may not be that second. it may not hit us like a ton of bricks. But it can hit us. And that will still make us feel like we are not being ourselves. Thus, I think Daniel’s two comments put together are not contradictory but necessary.

    The issue…I think…is that when we are pursuing virtue (that the self desires), then we end up having to cut away some BS that others have called virtue instead. We come to realize that some of the things we had been taught growing up were vice or sin actually were not, and trying to fit to their models is driving us to the ground and impeding actual progress.

    Of course, I allow for the possibility that at the same time, selves don’t always see every little thing the same as virtuous. I’m sure that’s dissatisfying if you need an objective, universally applied morality rather than say, a hodgepodge of intersubjectively accepted moralities mixed among preferences.

  7. Well, yes, but…

    If you choose a miserable but virtuous existence (lots of gay Mormons are doing this) who’s doing the choosing? Who’s preferring virtue over personal comfort? The authentic self…

    (Unless are a Calvinist and don’t believe in the possibility of an authentic self choosing virtue unaided by Divine Grace… But that’s a different discussion.)

  8. free will decisionmaking is so last century, John.

    I think the gay Mormon situation is a prime example of BS virtues that unfortunately, many of our friends buy into rather than authenticity. The results are depressing, but expected.

    Notice how the argument against homosexuality/SSA isn’t that avoiding the “homosexual lifestyle” is more authentic than not…but rather that one must deny oneself in the hopes that that vice will be annihilated, either here or in the next life. To that extent, gay people are told to live a perpetually miserable, loveless life because, not being heterosexual, they *can’t* authentically choose to be heterosexual, even if they can choose mixed orientation marriages.

    I think “miserable but virtuous” is a sign that people aren’t doing it right. Not to say hedonism is the rule of the day, but the deepseated misery of which we speak should NOT ever be part of “virtue”

  9. “To thine on self be true.”

    Funny, I would have thought it was just another way of saying that you should have personal integrity, not that you should embrace being a jerk! lol.

    Clearly the proverb is a little vague as-is, but that doesn’t make it worthless advice. But I wouldn’t take it to mean that you shouldn’t try to improve yourself. I’d take it to mean that you shouldn’t necessarily try to change aspects of yourself that are positive or neutral just to conform. Don’t assume that those aspects of your personality that are different are necessarily wrong. It’s not necessarily constructive to keep trying to put on a shoe that doesn’t fit when the shoe that fits is just as good. And — as far as flaws are concerned — you have to be honest with yourself (about having flaws) before you can address them.

    How to decide what to accept and what to change about yourself? That’s a hard question that requires a good deal of introspection. Interestingly, Holly recently put up a fascinating related post about how sometimes your health and your body’s stress reactions can give you some clues.

  10. “Just be yourself” is such easy advice to give that pretty much everyone says it at one point in time of their life. And when they do say it, most don’t really think critically about the problem at hand. That’s why it’s heard so often… because it seems to sound like good advice and everyone else is saying it… so let’s go for it.

    I heard it all the time on the mission (LDS). I also heard “Be your best self” from those who were more concerned about not looking as if they are promoting mission rule-breaking. Those who generally said “just be yourself” were often “apostates” or those who didn’t take the rules seriously.

    I never really understood it. The nature vs nurture thing comes to mind. Also, my personality/character is continually changing.

    Anyway, good post. I agree that emotions are like a guidance system. We can use them to evaluate how we go about life and to assess our desires and expectations.

  11. What is the self? The dichotomy between “being true to oneself” and “being true to external virtue” is a false one because all virtues are internal pieces of an evolving complex of memes that we call “self.” Love means one thing to me (now) and another thing (potentially) tomorrow: my “self” has to decide how to transfer the general principle (of love) into specific applications (saving one man, killing another) that are never exactly the same. Until I recognize the incontrovertible fact that my “self” is the one calling the shots on what I do when I love, I run the risk of doing something terrible (which we all run all the time) without feeling any responsibility for my actions (which I pass off on some external moral authority, not infrequently some god or group of religious people). So, in my opinion, Tim’s formulation is too vague to be really useful as a critique of society. If “being true to myself” means “doing whatever I feel like doing,” then the usefulness of this precept depends on what I happen to feel like doing at any given moment in time. What determines my feeling? Solidarity with fellow moralists? If that is the determining factor, there is nothing to prevent me becoming the next Adolf Eichmann (or John D. Lee, if you want a Mormon example). Commitment to deity? Too often this is just code language for “solidarity with fellow moralists” who will run me out of town on a rail if I challenge their god by denying their “right” to determine what I (personally) believe (or at least which beliefs I act on). Commitment to self? This too is often code language for “going with the flow” of unexamined collective moralities that can have disastrous consequences. The fact of the matter is that I as an individual will make moral decisions all the time, informed by mental connections unique to myself (in specific contexts), and that if I hope to survive long in this world and be marginally happy doing so I must learn to take responsibility for my values and their consequences. I cannot rely on others or deity (in any guise) to guarantee the infallibility of the fallible meme complex that is myself. So “being true to one’s best self” is not inferior morality (from my standpoint): it is the only morality available to anyone who has closely examined the criteria by which he or she makes choices.

  12. I guess a lot boils down to who you believe the self is or what you believe the nature of the self to be.

    If the self is considered to be inherently depraved, then being true to oneself is a one-way ticket to destruction.

    If the self is considered to be a spark of the Divine, then being true to oneself means to open oneself to all the Divine possibility implied by that.

    Chris’s recollection of hearing Mormons talk about being true to your “highest” self is very Mormon… In other words, they’re saying, when you are true to your self, be true in a way that honors your divine potential. It suggests that being true to yourself requires that you know who you are. It suggests we are only ever really lost when we forget that we are children of God.

  13. Andrew, I think we are on the same page. “Being true” is a process that requires us to be attentive. Your model allows that we might make mistakes along the way, but assumes that we have the capacity to figure things out eventually. That’s called learning.

    It seems to me like you can either trust that the self is capable of finding its way through life, or you must surrender to some kind of authoritarianism. Let someone else make all your choices for you. But the problem with this is, how do you know that whomever or whatever you surrender your freedom to is any better at making the right decisions than you are? And the act of surrendering your free choice to someone else is itself a choice that the self makes — which could be flawed or could be good. You can never, ultimately, avoid the responsibility that the ability to choose bestows on us. Though you can try to hide from it through some form of authoritarianism.

    I think ultimately people who tend to prefer authoritarianism are simply afraid to make mistakes, are afraid to engage in the difficult process of learning that life is all about. But sadly, authoritarianism only stunts our growth, it prevents us from making the kinds of choices that will make us more fully human and more fully divine. Maybe that’s why, in the Mormon cosmos, Satan was the advocate of the plan that would take our free agency away.

  14. chanson:

    I loved reading Holly’s post; don’t know how I missed it when it first came around, since it was just published a few days ago.

    Chris:

    I guess more people need to think critically about the problem at hand…if only there were a way to encourage that (since prepackaged phrases don’t seem to work all that well anymore).

    Joseph:

    If I got through all of that correctly, I am inclined to believe. Nevertheless, I can hardly believe that Tim or the people with which he associates would let a comment like, “It is the *only* morality available to anyone who has closely examined…” fly unresponded. So I wonder what the response becomes then?

    John G-W:

    In response to your first comment of 2…I guess that is the case. But I just wonder how we all get to such drastically different beliefs of the self and the nature of the self. I guess it’s not too surprising, ultimately, since we know there is a diversity of beliefs on, well…every other subject…so why not this one as well?

    I think you’re spot-on with your second comment.

  15. Andrew, my hunch is that they would respond by saying that when you ask, “What would Jesus do?” you are doing more than asking, “What would my best self do?” For me those two questions mean the same thing now (since I see Jesus as a subjective image I construct for my best moral self). I suspect that for them the best self is not really part of the self (if that makes sense): it is an objective higher power outside the self that dispenses revelation. So the disagreement is really only semantic. Whether we use WWJD or WWMBSD, at the end of the day both Tim and I are doing the same thing: interrogating ourselves (however conceived) and attempting to improve our approach to moral dilemmas. He thinks his “Jesus” works better than my “self” for this process. While it is very possible that his “Jesus” is better for him, I prefer to use my “self” because of past trouble using “Jesus.” For me, using “Jesus” meant surrendering my individual moral authority to church leaders, something that compromised my ability to behave morally as an individual (by training me to transfer responsibility for my actions onto someone else: “I’m just following the prophet in faith that one day I’ll feel good about this policy that seems bad to me”). Maybe one day I’ll feel more comfortable using Jesus again. Sorry for all the jargon, and for the long responses. This is a really interesting topic.

  16. I’m by no means advocating passing responsibility on to another entity (authoritarian or not). If any thing I’m calling for individual responsibility, the kind of responsibility that recognizes that a “greater good” may exist outside of my own desires.

    When a person sufficiently loves virtue and hates vice I’m more than convinced that being true to oneself is a perfectly fine idea. But the culture around me convinces me that something more needs to accompany the romantic notion that our own hearts know what’s best and as long as we satisfy our hearts everything will work out best. People do not live out this proverb with self-reflection or a concern for societal backlash. Part of the point of the proverb is to say “to hell with society”.

    I’m not a humanist, that’s where Andrew and I fundamentally come at this issue from different perspectives. I appreciate Chanson’s idea that “being true to thine self” involves recognizing your weaknesses. An attitude sorely missing from the narcissism surrounding me.

  17. So Tim and I agree practically, however we express ourselves verbally. From my perspective as a recovering Mormon apologist, it seems that “what you are” (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, secular humanist, agnostic, atheist) is much less morally significant than “how you are” (responsible individual, or not). I can interact with a wide range of religious traditions and come away edified, provided my interaction is with responsible individuals who share information without attempting any kind of coercion. By “coercion” I mean attempts to make people conform to an ideal (as opposed to “teaching them correct principles and letting them govern themselves”): this can be as blatant as forcing them to wear burkhas or as subtle as teaching that “there is really only one way (mine) to live well.”

  18. Andrew, you make a really good point about BS virtues. It seems to me that virtue and vice are not really opposites (just like strength and weakness are not really opposites: weakness is just lack of strength in a particular context). So, every virtue we define necessarily incorporates vice (just as every gain in physical strength specific to one context entails a loss somewhere else: training endurance means losing some raw power, and vice versa). Cultivating virtues responsibly requires acknowledging the vices that our virtues create (e.g., my extreme self-control predisposes me to look down on those who do not follow my discipline instead of treating them with respect; my humility leads me to form unequal relationships in which I am poorly treated, etc.). I did myself a lot of psychological damage by assuming that certain things were uniformly good (in all situations, at maximum dosage): I believed in non-vicious virtues. Eventually, my spirit broke down (just like your body will if you try to train for a marathon and an Olympic weighlifting event simultaneously using conventional methods).

  19. Sorry, I haven’t been responding.

    Tim,

    I think that nevertheless, even if we come to do thing that are beneficial for society, it cannot be purely because of society. It must be because of us. it’s just that since people are in many ways social beings, societal reactions will impact personal reactions.

    As far as the lack of self-reflection going on, I absolutely agree that this is shameful. But this isn’t enough to say that it is “romantic” that our hearts know best and as long as we satisfy our hearts, things will work out. Without self-reflection, people simply *aren’t* following that. That’s why things do not work out.

    Joseph (latter comment):

    It’s interesting how you say that…isn’t that a call for something like the golden mean?

  20. Yes! The “golden mean” is one tool that has been used to map the dangers of extremism.

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