I had just been reading Best American Essays 2004, the first two essays. America, Look At Your Shame! By James Agee; an older piece, the part that stood out to me most at first happened on a bus I began to say (it was a memorable scene to me) – but truthfully the part that stood out to me was the introspective nature of the writing. James was so aware of his own emotions, his own shame, and disgust, as well as that of others he watched in a photograph, in the news, after some riots. I found the honesty refreshing, admirable.
Brene Brown, known to me for years now as the “Shame Researcher” is one of my modern day heroes; I have spent a lot of time processing my own feelings of shame and guilt, understanding those dark feelings better, becoming less beholden to their damn grip on my psyche.
So shame. That feeling toxic to inspiration, that feeling that blows a not unnoticed deadly smoke that chokes the creativity out of a moment. Brene Brown, I remember hopefully correctly, said shame is toxic to humans. I agree. It is insidious and deadly and it can take its time to put you down or blow your heart to bits in an instant.
James Agee examined these things in himself as he observed others in his essay America, Look At Your Shame! He examined the discomfort, acknowledged the discomfort. And then shared it again. I think that’s how we understand things.
Then there was Envy. Envy was the next essay. But first, funny story about this. Weeks ago I did a tarot card pull for myself (a pull, to me, is one card, maybe more – a spread is a spread). I asked for insight, what could I change or improve.
Envy was the card I pulled. Immediately I felt that I was not envious. And then just as instantly I noticed my own defensiveness. I softened. How am I envious?
A flood of thoughts answered me. Everyone who had managed so far to build their lives in such a way that they were not as dependent as I have felt, not so desperately at the mercy of others, not so brazen as I have been, perhaps not so difficult to love.
Back to Envy, the essay. Author, Kathryn Chetkovich. She writes about the envy found between two writers. Herself and a man she came to love. He had his struggles to be sure, but there was something to be envied in the way he went about his craft while she, to her evaluation, floundered.
Lately I have been reorganizing my life and mind into some form of After Cancer that is some kind of beautiful (because I find power in that aspiration that compels me) – not only beautiful but also practical (sustainable!). There is something in my nature that will not allow me to take a step that does not feel right. Maybe it’s a shyness from old hurts, maybe it’s caution learned from more recent challenges, maybe it is a dogged loyalty to my own intuition that has been a very keen guide through extreme challenges; this is not only an intellectual challenge but that’s my biggest concern; I take some new step literally or figuratively, I feel overjoyed, I express this joy, I become exhausted, I struggle in a temporary role as prisoner of my exhaustion, wordlessly cursing my inadequacies, while also standing on the other side of them comforting me.
Then I think to myself, this is where cognitive dissonance goes to die.
For those who have not spent as much time examining things to do with the psyche, cognitive dissonance is holding two (or more?) opposing beliefs at the same time. I think this makes the soul crack. And without a good handle on our own soul, I think that our nature becomes vulnerable to the whims of passing currents, a slave to circumstance, never quite feeling “all there” but wanting, willing, desperately to feel that “all there” ness. Meanwhile, I think it’s possible as I have done it, to sit back inside oneself and watch the self do this and do that, say this and say that, sometimes believing the very opposite but those beliefs never quite reaching the face or the fingers.
I am not saved by resolution; I am saved by my poker face. It is much easier to bear. Plus it doubles as a kind of organic “botox” for my forehead, which perhaps is a clue to how much I care about those things. Lines in the right places. Lines that tell the story I want to tell. A smile line is no big deal. As long as it is a smile line. Sometimes they have threatened to turn into frown lines, the weight of my own concern pulling the corners of my mouth downward. I could always turn myself upside down and that would be some kind of strange smile if the direction of the corners of our mouth is all that counts in a smile.
Whether what I just wrote is true or not to another way of thinking concerns me but only for a minute; while I wrote it it was true to me. And isn’t it in that state of “nowness” that we find our power?
So if beliefs and ideas change with the stronger challenges of doubt or overwhelm, are they still real? Are they still authentic? Am I still being me?
Am I me when I am envious and admit it? Am I me when I ignore things like that to be present with something else, like what to eat and how pleased I am to find, in spite of my raw ways, kindness after kindness, dressed in many different clothes and weather? Am I me when I keep looking for more, more in me, more in the world around me that feels authentic, that feels me?
Is it authentic to embody something that I see as coming from outside of me, and blend it with me to make it my own? Is it authentic to be silent when words would cut? Is it authentic to craft responses to hurts repeated rehearsing them silently (maybe people don’t know)? Is it authentic to write from the head without passing it first by the heart? Is it authentic to think less because the world says through some of its spokespeople that is what one should do? But then what about doing less? Is it authentic to be instead of do? And then what will we do, about being?
There was something else I saw about authenticity the day I saw this prompt. Some call now the Age of Authenticity, where we can choose the shadows we confront; more specifically between the shadow of pretense and the shadow of authenticity. I think truth always surfaces, because it has the power of nature at its back, and nature is very efficient; being untruthful is not efficient in the long term because it requires extra bookkeeping, less time accepting the moment and building a strong foundation for a new moment. This split to me makes pretense far less robust than it makes itself out to be. Or am I oversimplifying things?
Perhaps when we split our energy into compartments we gain some fluidity, but what makes this an authentic decision?
A definition of authenticity which one can easily research for themselves today is that it is distinctly unique in origin. Wouldn’t that mean then that work done to discover ones originality (whether the one is a person or another entity such as a business) is work that goes the farthest towards stated goals? Put another way, quirky is currency.
Perhaps I have just jumped the shark, as some might say. But I don’t think so. We can play with idioms and challenge the devil in the details, but I believe authenticity comes from within and how do we know anything besides examining it, testing it, experiencing it from as many sides as we are capable of? And before all that, choosing to, intending to, with all the authenticity of our being to find clarity, to unclip the wings of our stated purpose and fly in alignment with our stated goals, celebrating the new direction with unparalleled dignity and strength.
Authenticity is not learned with words. Words might be a part of the experiencing and refining, the challenging of the intellect to its neighbors to examine more deeply, to shift from rightness to prudence, but only to me because something in those words was accompanied by a feeling – a feeling that, if monitored and acknowledged, adds to a bank of data, information, that can be used to make even more nuanced decisions based on a large body of data that taps into a deeper knowing, that knowledge found before the centers of language are engaged, the centers of language that are vulnerable to deception. Authenticity. It adds to that bank but it also takes from that bank, an honest feedback loop of information and responsiveness from a place of the senses.
So then, as a writer by identity, one who has been more of a ghost than an established author, what role does authenticity play for me now? With feelings so fresh and raw, where do I belong? Is that a question an authentic person would ask? I can determine from my knowledge, but in some kind of usual way of thinking, my mind seeks vacation (I think all survivors could use this time and comfort to become better!); ask the heart, ask the knowing. What is the issue? Perhaps there is no issue, and the question of belonging is my own residual doubt, the vacation waiting for me as I leave my old way of being and embrace a new one.
My own answer to the belonging question is, I belong here. I belong in the present. Whatever stories have been burned into my cells, they are part of the library of data that is me; an ever-expanding, growing, changing, me. I see stories as a vehicle for intentional change. I refine my stories always to help me be more present, more conscious, more honest, authentic, genuine. If it’s pretense then let me call that a game and let me play it with heart.
If change is the only certainty and the only value, then perhaps clues to authenticity can be found more in how and why we change. Because we know it is the most meaningful? Because it will be the soundest financial decision? For no special reason?
Is it a stretch to say that authenticity is an ownership of beliefs and behaviors? Give me authenticity over pretense most days. Except for the ones where pretense tells me what might be on the other side of it. Except for one where the pretense is a charade, a freedom from the details of our mundane stories to explore universal ideas through storytelling.
For that matter give me pretense with authenticity. Put it all in a hat and let me close my eyes and pull out whatever my fingers find. Add it to my own cup of now. Let me drink in the pretense with authenticity, I will make all of it mine.