FREEDOM & AUTHENTICITY
Authenticity is the degree to which a person is true to themselves in spite of external pressures. How to be authentic? One must accept individual freedom and take authentic actions, choices which come about as the result of personal understanding. Choices which are made in a manner which is consistent with a person’s true self, rather than merely acting from conformity according to the society in which that person lives.
Yet we are born within our respective societies and raised to accept the associated conventions, relationships, and in many cases the religions that characterize them. As the philosopher Martin Heidegger so aptly stated, “We are thrown into pre-made worlds.” Our parents and teachers infuse us with what we need to know in order to get by in the societies that we live in and often pressure us into behaving according to this established norm.
But if we just blindly follow those rules and expectations, which in many cases means we would be acting inauthentically, then we may begin to suffer from stress as a result. Choosing to behave based on who we are, however, results in our eliminating stress by being authentic. It’s important, therefore, to define who we really are in order to be able to live an authentic life. To achieve authenticity, an individual must accept their own freedom and create their own purpose.
FREEDOM & PURPOSE
The first step to being authentic is to recognize that as human beings we have no purpose other than what we create for ourselves. A major theme of existentialism is that every human is a free individual as explained by Jean-Paul Sartre:
“What does this mean? If one considers a manufactured object, say a book or a paper-knife, one sees that it has been made to serve a definite purpose. It has an essence, the sum of its purpose and qualities, which precedes its existence. The concept of man in the mind of God is comparable to the concept of paper-knife in the mind of the artisan. My atheist existentialism is rather more coherent. It declares that God does not exist, yet there is still a being in whom existence precedes essence, a being which exists before being defined by any concept, and this being is man or, as Heidegger puts it, human reality. That means that man first exists, encounters himself and emerges in the world, to be defined afterwards.” Jean-Paul Sartre.
Since we arrive in the world having no predetermined purpose, it is up to us to determine what out lives will be all about. That is freedom.
FREEDOM & RESPONSIBILITY
Human beings not only have the individual freedom to determine what our own lives will be, but we also have the responsibility to do so. Sartre summed it up by stating, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Freedom, then, is not only fundamental to being human, but as Erich Fromm so eloquently stated, freedom is something that we must either embrace or escape from. Fromm observed that embracing our freedom was healthy, whereas escaping from freedom was the root cause of psychological conflict.
The societies that we live in, however, tend to encourage escaping from the responsibility of freedom by promising a us feeling of comfort in return, and as a result many people do so. A common escape from freedom can be obtained through conformity. By changing oneself to fit the perception of society’s preferred type of personality, one can displace the burden of choice from oneself to society. To do this a person might tie their identity to an image which corresponds to some sort of social norm, such as becoming a dentist or a banker for example. The person then acts according to the image they have of how a dentist or a banker should act.
Another means of escape is through authoritarianism; relinquishing control of oneself to another person, or in the case of some theist religions to a deity or supernatural being. By submitting one’s freedom to someone or something else, individual freedom of choice can be removed almost entirely.
Human beings are free, but the responsibility resting on the individual to create ourselves and then be willing to act accordingly can be somewhat daunting. Consequently, the above comfort mechanisms that society offers do tend to appeal to the majority. But these people who do escape from freedom are denying their true selves in the process. They may live exemplary lives, but studies have shown that over a third of them will lie on their deathbeds regretting that they had not followed their dreams or taken more risks with their lives.
Now this does not mean that all acting in accordance with social norms is necessarily inauthentic. How to be authentic is about the attitude a person takes to their own freedom and responsibility, and the extent to which they act in accordance with that freedom. It is quite reasonable that a person is able to behave within the norms of society and still remain a free, self-determined individual.