My mother used to say, ‘If you will lie, you will steal; if you will steal, you will kill.’
‘That is a bit harsh don’t you think,’ I said. ‘We all lie a little. Sometimes it is a way of being polite.’
Anger flashed across her face.
‘No, no, no, no, no! A lie is a lie. The grace that is the real oil that eases the frictions of life is truth spoken in love.’
– from Halloween after Ms Sandy (A Short Story)
by Valerie Elverton-Dixon (at right)
Until some time in my mid twenties, I was unable to lie. Except as a child, and only to my parents. It wasn’t exactly a moral decision, more like a physiological impossibility. To this day, although I have trained myself, in some very exceptional circumstances, to manage to choose to lie, any time I assess that the context I am in cannot tolerate the full authentic self that I am, I disappear into some internal void, paralyzed and shut down. I see it as a limitation of mine, an inability to make choices about what I say or don’t say, to whom, and how. I experience this as dramatically different from simply being a value of mine that I choose to live by. Consequently, I gravitate towards those people and places where I feel free to express the fullness of who I am.
Like so many of us, I grew up imbibing the implicit dichotomy between authenticity and care, truth and love, honesty and niceness. Whereas many people I know have chosen the polite end of this dichotomy, my internal deep demands on myself always painted me into a corner of being honest to the point of being intimidating and difficult for people to be around. Not that I don’t care. Rather, in the frozenness of struggling to find room to be authentic when I believe I can’t be, I found no access to expressing the care that almost invariably is part of the fuel for the authenticity.
When I discovered Nonviolent Communication (NVC) I learned how to integrate verbally what was in my heart to the point where more and more of the time my expression of self also registers as care in those hearing me. Surprisingly, the main vehicle that brought me to this integration has been the path of vulnerability I’ve been on since 1996. The less of my internal energy is consumed by the attempts to protect myself, the more I find peace and calm in expressing the truth that lives in me, and the more room I have inside to find and express the care, naturally.
I have also accompanied many people on the opposite journey: finding a way to integrate more and more authenticity into their outward expression of care. I have supported many people in finding a way to embrace the potential consequences of more authenticity, as an alternative to an automatic, and therefore not consciously chosen, expression of care, often emanating from an internal “should”. From both ends, I have seen so many, myself included, become more alive and grounded, more able to navigate relationships, because of being able to reach this integration.
Naturally, this ongoing focus, in all the different directions that it goes, has provided ample opportunities to reflect on the meaning and doability of authenticity, another area of complexity that I have been enriched by exploring. Today I want to share some of the fruits of these explorations.
The subversive potential of authenticity
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the smooth fabric of human relationships that is sustained by the norms of social interactions – what it means to be nice or polite – is part of the mechanism that keeps systems of oppression in place. Yes, many times people don’t speak up because of fear. More often, though, we accept and internalize many aspects of our culture without realizing that in doing so we support institutions that we may otherwise disagree with. Our collective and cumulative choices about how we speak to our children, friends, and others in our lives reinforces, for ourselves and for others, the limits of what’s possible or allowed within our culture.
Within that context, choosing to engage with more authenticity has the potential to subvert, however momentarily, the fabric of relationships that makes life appear normal in the midst of so much devastation to people and nature. For one example, our entire culture depends on a thick wall of isolation that separates us from each other and leaves us believing that we are on our own, not owing anything to anyone, nor able to expect anything from others or count on a community to participate in our life’s joys and challenges. This endemic isolation is clearly reinforced by the continual choice to withhold truth from each other in the name of politeness.
Even before understanding this dimension of authenticity, I have noticed many a time that my way of speaking – saying things that are so often left unsaid; relating with more intimacy than the culture supports – stops that smooth, familiar way of relating. It breaks the isolation, and it also breaks the ease of the familiar. Both are true. At its worst, when the awkwardness exceeds a certain level, I lose my compass, begin to feel ill at ease, and lack the grace and habit to bring us back to flow. At times, I have experienced such interactions resulting in my not getting invited a second time. At its best, in the joy of connection and meaning that accompanies successful interactions, I regularly inspire others around me, briefly or for longer periods, to respond to me and meet me with their own authenticity, as well as to take their own risks in order to relate more fully to others in their lives. I find this to be a personal practice that anyone can choose to take on from the perspective of looking at the whole. Simply put, as you imagine what ways of relating to others are consistent with your vision of what you want the world to look like, in the most concrete terms, you can start living that vision today, in all your relationships. I don’t have any illusion that this could result in a global social transformation. I do believe that it’s a way of moving in that direction that is available to all of us without having to embark on a massive project of engaging with larger systems, which most people are reticent to take on.
Inner and Outer Authenticity
Part of the challenge of embracing more authenticity is the modern context of individualism. When everything about who we are is seen as personal, affected by who we were when we were born and, at most, by the family that raised us, it’s hard for most of us to grasp all the way that we are, to a very large degree, products of social forces larger than us. We are born not only into our family. We are also born into our gender, social class, race, religion, and other groupings, each of which is surrounded by a host of ways of being that are allowed or not allowed, viewed favorably or not, both within the group and from the outside. Each of us is the result of an ongoing struggle, often unconscious, which starts early on, to negotiate between what we want, spontaneously, in each moment, and what we are told we must or can’t be. This struggle goes beyond our family of origin, and extends into our schools, the images of people like us and different from us that are projected in the media, books, and cultural artifacts, and the small and brutal phrases our peers, teachers, and, later, co-workers and bosses utter. Here are two examples, one famous and one obscure.
Malcolm X recounts in his autobiography that he did very well in school all the way through 8th grade, until a white teacher told him he had no business pursuing his dreams of becoming a lawyer, because he was black. Where would he – or millions of others – find the strength as a child to defy those who are all powerful, and assert his birthright to want what he wants and be whoever he wants to be?
A friend of mine was particularly strong physically. When she was in third grade, she arm-wrestled all the girls and boys in her class. Word got around, and older children started arm-wrestling with her, creating long lines. She defeated everyone through fifth grade, and might have continued, except that the principal of her school called her in and expressed, in no uncertain terms, that she ought to stop, because it’s not fitting for a girl to be so strong. Where would she find the courage to persist?
After decades of such ongoing assaults that I believe all of us experience as children and many of us continue to experience as adults, it’s extremely difficult for most of us to really have a true, spontaneous sense of what is true for us at any given moment. Especially in contexts that might be fraught with social danger, we may well choose, unconsciously, to have our true responses go underground, leaving us with an achy sense of knowing there’s something more and having no clue what it is, only feeling numb or confused, either going on autopilot or simply stuck and lost. What, then, does it mean to be authentic in such moments, for example?
This question came up recently in one of the Tuesday evening teleseminars that follow this blog. One participant specifically asked how she could speak authentically about her experience, wishes, or feelings when she herself struggles to know them. That was when we articulated the distinction between inner and outer authenticity. In the most basic way, we can only express authentically that which is known to us internally. To the extent we hide from ourselves what is really going on inside, we have no way to bring it to others.
A Practice of Cultivating Authenticity
If it is, indeed, the case that we lost our capacity for authenticity through struggling against the powerful others who offered approval or rejection based on how well we matched who we were supposed to be, it makes sense to me that we can regain our access to authenticity, both outer and inner, by choosing, deliberately, to risk disapproval.
We can begin where we are, knowing what we do know about ourselves. However disconnected and alienated any of us might be at any given time, there are still those times when we know perfectly well what is going on inside us, and where we do have the choice whether or not to express it. The only reason we might be drawn to withhold that truth is because of risk of unpleasant consequences, ranging from hurt feelings, an unhappy look, or a snide comment all the way to incarceration and death in some circumstances. Each of these moments offers us the opportunity to choose how to proceed. Each time, freshly, we have the option of hiding or revealing the truth that lives in us. It’s never an easy choice, especially for those who have a lifelong habit of being nice. Being nice can be highly rewarded externally, even if it often comes with a high internal cost of self-doubt and anxiety. Choosing to walk towards potential risk of disapproval from the outside and shame from the inside challenges us to examine what kind of a human being we want to be on the deepest level.
Yet the potential reward is also significant. As we learn to integrate love and weave our care into our expression of a dissenting view, dissatisfaction with someone’s actions, or any of the many ways that our authenticity may strain our sense of continuity with the prevailing norm around us, we discover experiences that enrich and expand us. Externally, we may experience that greater authenticity leads to deeper intimacy and satisfaction in our relationships. After all, we all know, secretly or with more clarity, this potential effect of embracing greater authenticity, however scary the path. Internally, the more we send a message to ourselves that we are ready to take risks externally, the more we hear truth from within. The possibly lonely and often frightened part of ourselves that yearns to be known even by us begins to trust the inner safety we can provide ourselves, and can choose, more often, to come forth from behind the veil of inner confusion and make itself known more fully. With that come ever new horizons of intoxicating freedom as we liberate ourselves from any notions of what is appropriate and nice, and choose, more and more, to find, cultivate, and express ever deeper layers of ourselves.
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