I’ve never actually met a fully authentic person. I’m not sure I would want to. It’s been said that a person begins to lie as soon as he becomes polite. There’s a lot of truth to that. It all depends on what you mean when you talk about being authentic. Do you really want to hear what someone else actually thinks about you and whatever you’re saying? I’ll bet your spouse, friends, or family are sure grateful they don’t get the unfiltered, one hundred percent authentic you.
Do you remember skimming the spark notes of that weird, tenth grade required reading book, The Catcher in the Rye? The main character, Holden Caulfield, embodies that coming-of-age teenage angst of grappling with an adult society where he sees everyone is artificially conforming to social norms. In other words, no one is authentic. Everyone’s playing a game. Everyone’s wearing a mask in some situations, at some times. They’re all “phonies”, Holden’s favorite word.
For the past generation or two, it’s as if our whole society is stuck in a Holden Caulfield crippling fear of phonies. There’s nothing so important as believing oneself to be an authentic free spirit. Chuck the dress clothes, the traditional values, the stifling, musty air of institutions. Be yourself. Be authentic.
Until you go online, that is. Then you realize that there are a thousand identity-formation pressures coming from a thousand different groups. You realize that, in every culture, in every time, in every arena of life, there is no escape from “society.” No one is truly free to be whoever they want to be. We learn to express ourselves in ways that feel individual, but will nonetheless be acceptable and approved by the societal grouping we want to fit into. Make no mistake, you are in a society. Even if the ethos of your society is based around rebelling against another society. There are still rules. There is a code of conduct. And there are consequences for going against that code.
This is all simply part of life, and usually as we get older, we accept the fact that society is generally a positive thing, and that really, it’s okay to say ask “How are you doing?” in passing, even when you don’t actually care. You learn that a big reason behind all this “phoniness” is that it beats everyone being a jerk all the time.
But our digital age has made the situation even worse. We live in a disembodied world of curated authenticity. There’s nothing real to what you see in social media, and you know it. Instead, we have one more layer of phoniness we all put up. You choose your photos, choose your filter, choose your caption. And then that’s supposedly your life. What’s almost worse is the self-aware attempts to break through. The attempts to shatter the added barrier of the screen, and post about your “real self”, your authentic, messy, and of course, naturally endearing self. You’re “real”, but in all the right ways. It used to be just celebrities who lost their true self under the constant eye of the public. Now we all give away our true selves freely in hopes that we might become a celebrity.
It’s nauseating. You want to look away, but where do you look? Where do you find anyone who is truly authentic, let alone a pathway to authenticity for yourself? One place is in the Bible. If you read the gospels, you find four separate, very personal accounts of the same person. Four people who lived, ate, slept and watched Jesus all day. Here was someone who never told a lie. He never put on airs. He never deleted a tweet that didn’t get enough likes. We get an account of the real Jesus, and how he lived. More than that, Jesus’ primary and most urgent call today is for people to know him. To get to know him personally. He doesn’t set up barriers, give you his card, and direct you to his website. Jesus takes great pains to make sure you actually know him, including the painful and awkward parts of him he knows you’re probably not going to like.
So what can we learn from Jesus about how to find authenticity in the world, and be authentic ourselves? One thing is to recognize that it’s not going to happen online. It’s not as if there’s nothing gained through online connection, but it won’t be authentic relationship. Authenticity comes in person, over time. It’s okay that your relationships with most people will not be truly authentic. To believe those relationships are, or that they should be, is to strain and maim the relational process. The ability to be authentic is gained through small deposits of trust accumulated over time. As both people in the friendship respond with love (not necessarily approval, which would be impossible to give across the board), then layers of trust begin to create a supporting infrastructure for expanding authenticity. Authenticity then matures as life mingles in more varied and less curated circumstances. We’re able to catch each other with our guards down.
Our human longing for authenticity will only grow more acute as the digital world takes over our geo-spatial world, but Christians will always have a way of escape through connecting with the fully authentic Jesus, who knows the fully authentic you.