Thursday, October 14, 2010

authenticity brings freedom, but not comfort

Inauthenticity is the norm. Most people are inauthentic, if not all.

The true nature of reality is not necessarily something humans want to see.

Death, suffering, and meaninglessness are three aspects of existence that people have a hard time accepting. Existentialists assert that inauthenticity is pervasive because most people do not want to know the hard truths of existence. Instead, people want to comfort themselves with a vast array of lies about life. These lies range in size from major metaphysical fibs to the tiny tales we tell ourselves, but they are all lies we want to hear.

Given what has been said about authenticity, it’s hard to see why anyone would want to achieve it. As the existentialists admit, achieving authenticity entails not only accepting that the world has no intrinsic order or purpose, but also that we are fragile and finite creatures who bear complete responsibility for ourselves and the meanings we create. Given the burden of this awareness and the feelings of estrangement and insanity it can cause, it is easy to see why individuals prefer to remain ignorant of the nature of the human condition and insulated from the truth.
Though inauthenticity does seem to have some notable advantages over authenticity, the latter is still preferable. There are several reasons for this. First, while living inauthentically does alleviate anxiety, it does not eradicate it. For existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, anxiety issues from the nature of our being. Thus, the only possible way to eradicate anxiety is to annihilate ourselves. This hardly seems a desirable option. After all, if death marks our end, then we will not be around to appreciate the eradication of anxiety that it brings. According to Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger, anxiety is an inescapable aspect of our being. It is part of our being because humans all have a sense of their constitution, a visceral concern for being that is rooted in an intuitive awareness of their true nature. Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger believe that we all have a sense of the fragility and dependency of our nature that fosters feelings of anxiety. Existentialists recognize that we can disguise or deny awareness, but they assert that we cannot eradicate it. Inauthenticity is precisely this attempt to disguise or repress what we know in our gut but do not want to admit to our mind. When one lives inauthentically one covers over the true cause of one’s ontological insecurity and attributes this feeling instead to some mundane cause. For example, instead of attributing the generalized anxiety we experience to existence itself, we instead tend to attribute it to some localized source, like work, another person, or the lack of a particular object or status. We do this largely because attributing ontological insecurity to a mundane source gives us the impression that this insecurity can be controlled or even eradicated. We figure if we get the job, or get the right car, our insecurities and dissatisfactions will be eliminated. However, since inauthenticity represents a “light ... from [oneself]” and we cannot escape what we are, an inauthentic life is characterized by a certain desperate fervency and perpetual effort. Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us are familiar with this insidious cycle. Sadly, because of its internal dynamic, inauthentic individuals exist on the run from their being while at the same refusing to acknowledge the actual cause of their flight.
In addition to failing to eradicate anxiety and necessitating a sort of “life on the run,” living inauthentically also has the negative consequence of limiting an individual’s freedom. As existententialists explain, when one lives inauthentically one covers over not only the true nature of the world, but also the true nature of the individual. For existentialists, though humans find themselves in a situation they did not choose, they are free to determine themselves within that situation. Because this freedom is frightening, individuals often seek to deny it. Individuals who live inauthentically live in denial of their freedom. Consequently, they live without a genuine awareness of their own possibility. Individuals who are inauthentic do not admit the true extent of their choice. For example, instead of embracing the opportunity they have to create themselves, they instead adopt predetermined identities. They slip into roles that were dictated to them rather than crafted by them. Ultimately, inauthentic individuals cannot make genuinely informed or autonomous choices because they refuse to be honest about the actual state of affairs and because they make choices that are in keeping with their determined roles, rather than choosing for themselves. By removing responsibility, living inauthentically gives individuals some comfort. However, it does so at the expense of individual autonomy.
The insights that authenticity brings are only unbearable as long as we resist them. Though existence may not be everything we want, it is only overwhelming if we insist that it be something other than it is. If one lets go of these expectations, one can see things as they are. Only at this point can one fully appreciate and make use of the remarkable gift of existence. While authenticity may not conform to our conventional definition of bliss, living authentically affords individuals a unique serenity because it ends the maddening run from our being that characterizes inauthenticity. It represents an opening up to ourselves and an acceptance of what is. Though the truth of existence may be sobering, it is all we have and all we are. Regardless of its attraction, if Heidegger is right and our being is time and our time is finite, then it would be madness to waste one’s time--and thus one’s being--living inauthentically.

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