By David Hegg
A week ago I read an article about a gentleman who spent thousands to become a dog. That’s right. He decided his authentic self was a collie, and spent an exorbitant amount to wear an authentic collie costume so his authentic “self” could finally engage the world around him.
My immediate thought was probably like yours: This is some kind of joke! Sadly, the man’s intentions were neither comedic nor motivated by a desire to make the news. Turns out he was just being carried downstream in the increasingly swift current of what I’m going to call “audience-participation authenticity.”
By “audience-participation authenticity” I mean the ideology sweeping our society that who I am, my “authentic self,” depends on how you see me. My authentic self is only real if you validate it. My happiness, my well-being, my belonging, and all the rest of my “me-isms” become real and authentic if, and only if, you look at them, agree with them, appreciate them, and then applaud them. You see, my authenticity actually becomes authentic only as the you – the audience around me – participate in, and thereby validate my charade. I guess the gentleman who wanted to live like a collie needed everyone to see him as a collie to finally “find himself.”
There are so many dangers in this “audience-participation” form of authenticity but here are the biggest ones. First, it doesn’t work. If my authentic self is ultimately something others have to validate, then it isn’t really authentic in terms of being organic, natural, and therefore, the true “me.” What happens if those who validate my “authentic identity” change their minds? Does that mean I’m really not a collie? And what about when I find that a dog’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Do I have to admit I’m really not a collie to escape the consequences of my “audience-participation authenticity?” Does my audience then have the right to mock and ridicule me, and cast aspersions on my motives? Bottom line, when my authenticity depends on others’ recognition and respect, I’ve abdicated any leadership in my own life, and that is never the road to happiness and well-being.
Secondly, “audience-participation authenticity” not only doesn’t work, it also is personally degrading. As mentioned, this ideology not only surrenders up the power of self-being to the whims of others, but also is dishonest. It just isn’t ethical to declare as authentic that which can never be. And it says all the wrong things about those who try.
Can we really respect and think highly of someone who insists he is a dog? Would you want him teaching your children, handling your money, mowing your lawn? (I’ll stop short of asking if you’d want him herding your cattle!) It is so ironic that those who delegate the validation of their “authentic selves” are actually participating in the wilting of their own souls. They are actively debasing themselves even as they are declaring they’ve found their authentic selves. How sad.
Third, searching for authenticity outside of who we’ve been created to be effectively prevents us from actually finding it. Rather than look at who we actually are, so many chase after what they can never actually be. That is the saddest part of it all. To overlook who you really are because culture says you can find something better is one of the biggest lies concocted. My advice: Set your mind to be the best “you” you can be, and by the way, you’re the only “you” and that means you don’t have any competition. Take advantage of who you are, and become all you were meant to be.
I believe every human being is created by God as a unique, valuable person. As our fingerprints testify, we’re all “one of a kind,” endowed with our own set of skills, talents, loves, perceptions, tastes and myriad other categories that offer a lifetime of discovery and use. We are built for relationship, for service, for learning, for growing, for laughter and tears, and for so many other magnificent activities and experiences that line the path of life ahead of us. And, best of all, who we actually are is the sum and substance of our authenticity. We actually can’t escape that so we may as well maximize and optimize it.
The key to life isn’t manipulating your authentic self so others will accept and applaud some expression of you. It is digging down into who you are, building character and integrity, love and grit, courage and compassion, and making the most of who God made you so you can help those around you maximize their lives and abilities. God has made lots of dogs, so there’s no use being one. Besides, we love and need you!
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.