2013-05-26

Authenticity, Part II

In my last post, I discussed what I perceive to be a growing thirst in society for authenticity. This thirst is everywhere, and it may be beneficial to consider an example before proceeding further.

Consider, for example, the recent case of an Ecuadorian who kidnapped a New York businessman:
Businessman Pedro Portugal was found this week. 
Police say he'd been held in a warehouse for more than a month. They say he was bound and burned with acid as captors demanded a $3 million ransom from his family in Quito, Ecuador.
That's a pretty authentic crime. The suspect is also alleged to have impersonated a police officer. But what does he have to say for himself?
A man charged in the brazen abduction and brutal captivity of a New York City businessman says he "made a mistake" but he's "not a criminal."
So a kidnapper would have us believe that he simply made an honest mistake. Hey, anyone could accidentally kidnap a rich businessman, burn him with acid, and hold him for ransom. It doesn't make you a criminal...

Set aside the banality of stipulating that the one and only necessary and sufficient condition for "being a criminal" is breaking a law, and instead focus on what the criminal himself is getting at. What he means to suggest is that criminals are bad people, but that he's not a bad person. Criminals are knaves who are engaged in unethical behavior, presumably from dastardly motives. The suspect in this case wants people to understand that he made a bad choice (to kidnap, torture, and ransom a rich businessman for money), but that he doesn't want people to see him as bad.

This criminal has a lot to thirst for. I don't doubt that he is destitute and struggling through dire circumstances, so for one thing he thirsts for a better economic well-being. He is also clearly suffering from a dearth of moral integrity, for - even if it were true that he is not an altogether bad man - kidnapping and burning an innocent man with acid is a fairly hefty mistake, as far as moral shortcomings go. He thirsts for money, he thirsts for a better sense of morals...

...and, puzzlingly, he thirsts for authenticity, i.e. the authenticity of humanity. He doesn't want his true moral character revealed, and now that it is, he wants people to simply understand that something other than his moral character propelled him toward a terrible mistake.

The game he's playing here is a little semantic doozy that relates to what "criminal" means, and what kind of person qualifies for that description. If he's a "criminal," he has to admit to being a bad person. If he's not a fundamentally bad person, then how can he be a "criminal?"

So it goes. We want the authenticity that comes with the meaningfulness of lables; but we don't want the labels to be applied in a way that makes us feel bad. Rather change ourselves, and achieve authenticity, we would rather change the labels, and achieve... something else.

The escape from all of this nonsense is surprisingly simple: To enjoy authenticity, you have to actually be authentic. This is horrendously, terrifyingly foreign to a society that has grown so extremely comfortable with always putting their best foot forward. In the old days, that consisted of putting on nice clothes and walking with your head held high whenever one was in public. In today's world, it consists of choosing deceptive camera angles for your Facebook profile photo.

Every step of the way, we are seemingly lobbying for ourselves. I'm not just the guy paid to do the work; I'm not just the guy who derives personal satisfaction from a job well done. No, I'm the guy you need to give a shot at project manager. I'm the guy who needs an elevator pitch. I'm the guy who was seen having lunch with the SVP, the guy who has a killer photo of himself playing guitar on stage, the guy who has a whole Facebook album devoted to pictures of myself on a sunny, exotic beach. I am pure awesome, pure interesting, 100% cool, all the time. I never pass gas. I never cry. I never feel bad. I never strike out when I make a pass at someone. I'm perfect.

...but not too perfect, because then I'd be vain.

If you want authenticity, you have to be able to sacrifice your public image a little bit. I'm not saying you have to own up to the fact that the only reason your profile picture looks awesome is that there was really good lighting in the club that night. But would it kill you to acknowledge that your life can be pretty messed up sometimes?

Here's a story: Everyone thinks I'm an amazing runner; but I've suffered a lot of humiliation as a result of running. It's not just the cat calls, I've come in dead last in really important races before. Not just last place, but humiliatingly, excruciatingly last place. You know, the kind of last place where even your parents start to get bored and stare off into space, wondering when you'll be finished so that they can go back to doing something less cold and more interesting. I've been stranded in winter weather wearing only a pair of neon shorts and the terrifying realization that I need to find a bathroom, and fast. Even worse, I've used running as a way to escape my real problems.

The thing about an authentically good story is that it typically involves a good, healthy dose of humiliation. You can't triumph without adversity, and let's face it: you're just not that awesome. The number of true geniuses, Olympic gold medalists, Nobel laureates, etc. is excruciatingly small, and even those guys have some serious demons.

We're people. It's not that "nobody's perfect," it's that "perfect" is an intellectual construct we developed to help ourselves remember what to aspire to. It doesn't exist, not because we have failed to achieve it, but because it is unattainable by design.

In our unyielding pursuit of perfection, however, we have all happened up on a horrible mistake: We have discovered that we can pilfer some of the benefits of real achievement if we manage to convince other people that we've achieved a lot more than we really have. It goes alright for a while, but eventually you have to pay the piper. We're borrowing against our authenticity. That kind of debt can be ruinous.

First things first, allow yourself to be imperfect... Not to yourself, although, yes, that would help. Allow other people to know that you're imperfect. Smile about it. Laugh about it. It's funny. It's part of being human.

The irony is that authenticity is easy to achieve.