Everyone wants to be authentic. You want to be true to yourself, not a slavish follower of social expectations. You want to “live your best life,” pursuing your particular desires, rather than falling in line with whatever everyone else thinks happiness requires. Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships and enhanced work performance.I am not especially impressed by this research, which you can read about at the link if you like, but I am fascinated by the question of the authentic self. There is a notion, strong in the western tradition, that you have an authentic self separate from your community and your culture. There are the things that your society says you should want, and then there are the things that you really want.
But authenticity is a slippery thing. Although most people would define authenticity as acting in accordance with your idiosyncratic set of values and qualities, research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities, such as being extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable.
I very much question whether this is real.
Consider a person who gives up an ordinary, somewhat boring middle class suburban existence married to the right sort of person, doing respectable work, to become a fishing guide in Alaska. He or she might say, "Now I'm being true to my authentic self." But really "running off to be a fishing guide in Alaska" is every bit as much of a cultural construct as "living comfortably as a middle class suburbanite." Conforming is a social role, but in our world, so is trying to break away and live "authentically."
I would say that "authenticity" itself is a cultural construct.
There is no such thing as a person without a culture. Everything we are and do is shaped by the world around us. Including rebelling against the constraints of our culture, which our particular culture very much encourages.
I think often of myself in light of this question, because there is a part of me that wants to be a writer; this somehow feels more authentic to me than sitting at my desk manipulating spreadsheets. But this dream is shared by many thousands and maybe millions of my contemporaries; how much of what I imagine is really me, and how much comes from a shared fantasy of a creative life? (Does that question mean anything?) Novels, the things I most want to write, are a highly contrived and artificial art form only a few centuries old, and fantasy novels are younger still. The stories I want to tell are built from pieces of other stories, telling about things I have been taught are important: love, friendship, struggle, triumph, defeat, acceptance, defiance.
I don't mean to argue that people have no differences. My children were born different from each other in ways that still shape them. But whatever they brought into the world takes form only in and through our particular world; whatever feelings spring from their hearts can only act on the options our culture presents to them.
We make choices, yes. Our world offers us many ways to live, and we have to pick one. But who knows which would be more authentic? I think some people do make bad choices and end up with lives that make them unhappy, and sometimes they do this from caution or submission to their families rather than "following their dreams." But maybe for some people caution and submission are authentic; maybe for some people breaking free and striking out on their own would be utterly false. And consider the feelings that picture arouses in us; despite my desire in writing this to be objective, the cautious, conventional path strikes some part of me as cowardly and weak. But that, I submit, is because my culture taught me to feel that way, and maybe real radicalism would be in recognizing that every choice is a mix of self and society, of will and submission.
What is us and what comes from outside us is an impossible questions to answer, because everything is both.