In Part 1 of this series, we enlisted the help of philosopher Martin Heidegger to dig deep into the phenomenon of following the crowd – of drifting along with “what one does.” We considered how tempting and, to an extent, natural, doing so is; we also examined a different approach to our lives, that we called authentic, demanding reference to ourselves and conscious decision-making. This approach is more difficult, but more rewarding. Below, we’ll consider a few things to keep in mind to help us live more authentic lives.
“To be nobody-but-yourself –in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else –means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
As mentioned at the end of Part 1, there’s no precise formula or roadmap to authenticity. There are no easy steps, either. However, there are some things we can keep in mind to help us stay on the right path – our own paths. Consider the following:
Drop the Anchor
Remember that boat analogy? Well, an important step in the transition from drifting along to steering oneself is dropping the anchor. Something needs to interrupt our drifting – that mostly unconscious inertia – so that we can look around, take stock, check in with ourselves and decide which direction to take. We need to be stopped in our tracks.
Often, this is sparked by something outside ourselves, such as a significant event in our lives. The death of my aunt several years ago dropped my anchor. Throughout my early- to mid-20’s, I realized something strange about myself: I didn’t believe that I’m going to die. I knew it, cerebrally, and I could say the words, but I did not feel or believe them. When my aunt, one of the most vibrant and vivacious human beings I’ve ever known, died of cancer far before what seemed like her time, it hit me that this would happen to me one day, too. I didn’t believe she was going to die, either, but she did. And so will I.
Death holds a special place in Heidegger’s philosophy. We often console ourselves on the topic of death by reminding ourselves that everyone dies, that it’s part of nature. But this has a way of disconnecting us from the very personal and intimate nature of our own unique death. Being in touch with the fact that each of us will die, that each of our deaths is uniquely our own, can put us in touch with the fact that, just as our own death is an individual affair, our lives are completely unique and our own as well. You can live your life in a way that honors its intimate connection to yourself or continue drifting along, living as “one” does, rather than how the one and only you could.
Heidegger wasn’t suggesting that we live authentically by brooding over the fact that each of us going to die. Rather, he said that keeping this understanding with us can motivate authenticity – seeing the breadth of possibilities before us and taking responsibility for our lives. After my aunt died, I stopped being complacent and thought about what I really wanted. I realized that I wanted to return to college 5 ½ years after dropping out. I realized that I wanted to change professions, and started working on ways to make my mark in my own way. Just as my death will be my own, my life is my own. This understanding that our time is limited, and is our own time, has a strong motivating capacity.
Anchors come in many forms; anything that makes you think about how you’re living and question why you’re doing it that way is an anchor. A person whose courage and authenticity inspires you can be your anchor. Reading a book with insights that wake up something within you might be your anchor. The trick is to be open to the disruptive nature of such experiences – to allow them to interfere with the mostly comfortable routine of drifting and use the experience, whatever it may be, to motivate reflection and tough decision-making.
“It's not only moving that creates new starting points.Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities.”
Sometimes I like to make myself uncomfortable by reminding myself that I can pick up and move to France, or I could close my computer forever and never write another word, or I could become a hermit and live in the woods.
Why are these thoughts uncomfortable? Not only because I really don’t want to do any of those things, but because the full breadth of possibilities before us is a bit terrifying. That’s because it makes us aware that we have choices, and puts us in a position of responsibility for making them for ourselves, without deference to “what one does.” Though it’s uncomfortable and scary, opening ourselves up to the full range of possibilities before us allows us to make a decision about what to do and who we want to be. It enables us to take responsibility for our existence, rather than being ushered along by the current.
It’s important to note that the possibilities we’re open to don’t only involve things we do, such as careers and pursuits. There are possibilities for judging, feeling, valuing and believing as well. We can choose to open ourselves up to different perspectives and try to gain an understanding of them; this involves questioning our current judgments, feelings, values and so on. As with considering alternate paths we could pursue in terms of action, considering foreign perspectives and questioning our own can be uncomfortable. But until we make the effort to understand a broad range of perspectives, we can’t arrive at our own authentic ones. Much of our perspectives may have been shaped from childhood or by those around us without much input of our own, and they may be narrowed by the limited range of experiences they reflect; we owe it to ourselves to question and expand these areas of our lives.
Look to Yourself
Of course, acknowledging our possibilities doesn’t mean actually pursuing all of them – not only is that impossible, since we are mere mortals, but that’s not what authenticity is all about. I’m not going to move to France, quit writing or live a solitary life in the woods, and that’s good – because I really, truly don’t want those things. I choose not to make those choices. Before we open ourselves up to our possibilities, however, we don’t choose not to pursue them; we simply drift along, not acknowledging that they are possible for us.
So, how do we decide what possibilities to pursue? This is a difficult question to answer because, as stated above, there’s no precise formula for authenticity. We can’t tell you what path to take, or how exactly to choose it. But we recommend asking yourself the following questions for guidance:
- Why do I want to do [x]? Does that desire emanate from myself, or is it because others are doing it?
- Why do I believe what I believe? Because I’ve thought it through from many angles, or because I’ve been going along with others or was born into it?
- Where do my judgments come from? A survey of the status quo or a thought process?
- Do I value what my social circle, family, culture, etc. values?
- What impact do I want to have on the world?
- What passions and skills do I have for fulfilling that purpose? What skills do I need to acquire?
These questions can help you take a personal inventory of sorts concerning what is directing your life – you or the current – and can help you get back into communication with yourself. The answers you come up with will help you choose which direction to steer yourself in.
We here at Good Choices Good Life tend to favor the hard road. We know that good choices are often the most difficult ones to make, and we’re here to encourage you along the way and provide information to help you make the best choices for yourself. This article series on authenticity was meant to inspire you to make the hard choice, and to give you a few tips for living the life that only you can live, because your life is yours. Remember: The hardest path is often the most rewarding. We encourage you not to shy away from unsettling experiences, to be courageous and to honor the individual life that you’ve been given.
“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”
Written by Amée LaTour
- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -
BECOMING A BETTER VERSION OF YOURSELF
Drifting Along vs. Steering Your Boat
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