I am often asked two questions, “What is an authentic life?” and “How does one know whether or not they are living authentically?”
Sometimes the best way to answer a question is to provide a clear understanding of its opposite, so what would an inauthentic life look like? After all, we are living, breathing, eating animals, doing natural things, so just what is meant by living inauthentically?
The quick answer is probably less than satisfying. The quick answer is living a life untrue to ourselves, but then, what exactly does that mean? Does it mean that I wanted to be singer when I was young and now I’m a scientist instead? Does it mean that I make a meager wage and therefore I can’t live the style I’m entitled to live in order to discover my authentic self? Or does it mean something more like my life is simply not satisfying, so how could it be authentic?
The Native American philosopher, Lame Deer, suggests that an authentic life would not include self-deprecation. Lame Deer believes that we can’t stand our natural animal selves so we hide from who we our. We use deodorants and perfumes to hide our smell, we disfigure our faces with cosmetic procedures in desperate attempts to hold aging at bay, and we enslave ourselves to a system that reduces us to cogs in the economic machinery. In fact, we spend our lives focused on money and define ourselves according to our role in the machination of humanity, and thus become not much more than work robots contributing to the never ending cycle of production and consumption, lost from our true being and from nature itself.
Gandhi believed that modernity was inherently evil and that liberalism–promoting the freedom to do as you please, to make your own consumption decisions–actually made slaves of some in order to benefit others. For Gandhi, the capitalistic industrial complex carried with it the promise of inequitable distribution and that means the subversion of democracy and the growth of consumerism.
So what’s wrong with consumerism? After all, the hunt, the chase, the capture–all of this is a part of our primitive make-up, and isn’t shopping just our modern sublimation for the good old tribal hunt?
Tolstoy tells us in his work, The Death of Ivan Ilych, that for life to be truly meaningful we need to have a connection both with nature and with human relationships. The artificial life, for Tolstoy, is one led in a secular world disconnected from the natural; while devoted to the artificial forms of society that give rise to losing any meaning other than our role in the herd, that leaves us hopeless when the certainty of death draws nigh.
Nietzsche informs us in his Twilight of the Idols, that above all, we should always retain our authenticity and take full responsibility for doing so. In his words, “If we possess our why of life, we can put up with any how.” He further adds, “The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” What he means by that is quite clear. Nietzsche asks us to consider who we are and he begs us to evaluate our lives from the maxim of whether we live for ourselves, or as some cog in a machine pursuing the goals and purposes of other people? Nietzsche believes that it is our nature to pursue our freedom to rise above and not just be an equal member of the herd.
One of my favorite authors, Og Mandino, compared our modern world and the people that inhabit it to a Nabisco factory. He put it this way, we are no more individual “than any of the millions of saltine crackers that emerge daily.”
Lame Deer speaks of the Little Big Horn and General Custer. He narrates a story of how the soldiers under Custer had just been paid and they carried all this paper money–what the Sioux children called “green frog skins.” They died for their money, their green frog skins. Those that sent them into battle were doing so for gold in the Black Hills. The Sioux children used the green frog skins to make toy buffalo and the like. According to Lame Deer, white folks dedicate their lives to green frog skins and that’s why when you ask them who they are, they answer defining their position as a cog in the great machinery: I’m a lawyer, a carpenter, a plumber, a doctor, a truck driver, a waitress or what have you.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that money is evil. I have a small business and the people who work for me depend upon their jobs for income, just as my family depends upon me. I hope my employees and associates find their work helping people as rewarding as I do. Still, there are bills to be paid and we all face that fact every day. So the real issue is not about those green frog skins so much as it is about their utility and how much of our lives they define.
How do you define your life? I choose to think that we are spiritual beings inhabiting a human body for a special experience and it’s not the one acting as a pawn controlled by all of those who would own our every thought. No–it is the mindful life, aware and engaged in our inner most self-discovery, alert to the fact that as we live, we literally live into who we are–or we don’t, and that is our only real choice!
I hope you find time during this holiday season to recognize not only all that you are thankful for, but all that you still have to live into.
Thanks for the read, and as always, I appreciate your comments and feedback.
NY Time Bestselling Author of Choices and Illusions