The cover of the October issue of Psychology Today is plastered with a popular buzzword that makes my skin crawl: authenticity. The occasion is an essay that promises to teach you “how to stay true to yourself in an artificial world.” Ground Zero of the artificial world is supposedly the social media that confers utmost value to the best performers. This value arguably colors the entire culture so that, politically for example, what matters most is what people want to believe is true — not what approaches the objectively true. Thus, we watch endless videos of Trumpsters being confronted with facts about their hero’s criminal, crazy performances. When ultimately cornered, they triumphantly blurt, “I don’t care!”
The obsession with authenticity is certainly not new. It’s been 400 years since Polonius famously advised his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true … and thou canst not then be false to any man.” Here’s the problem: Polonius was a slimeball who spied on his son, then his daughter (who soon committed suicide), and ultimately Hamlet, who plunged a dagger into the advocate of self-truth, who was eavesdropping behind a curtain.
So, what was Shakespeare suggesting by giving words that have been repeated as utmost wisdom for four centuries to a seemingly hypocritical asshole? Is it possible to be authentically true, at least intellectually, to thine own self and also be a scumbag? Yeah, it really is. None of us is single-minded. The natural condition of the human psyche is multiplicity. When a client comes to see me and starts complaining that the job he hates keeps him from becoming his true best self, I ask him what he would rather be doing. Easily eight out of 10 times, the client has no idea. And so we begin the search for the soul’s purpose. By the time we catch a whiff of it, the client has typically found more entertaining pursuits. I always repeat the words of Henry Miller in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, which I read when I was 25 after ending five years of marriage to a woman and editing weekly newspapers in rural Georgia: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” I became obsessed with freak shows — not that surprising after interviewing prisoners convicted of crimes like stealing hair pomade for a preacher — and trying to explain to my psychiatrist that I didn’t think fucking her was going to make me give up dick. I was learning.
And, really, have queer people not always defied the culture’s fantasy of authenticity? The state, psychiatry, and the law conspired to destroy primordial love. Were we being inauthentic by burrowing in the closet to avoid ostracization or prison (which counterintuitively may have been one of the few relatively safe spaces to be queer)? You get the point. Authenticity is not the possession of a single abiding true self always on display. The author of the article in Psychology Today acknowledges that, sort of, claiming authenticity is about qualities like awareness and adaptive behavior. If I have to use the term, I say it’s about taking on the struggle to be kind in the face of my own fear and animal greed. I believe in the Buddha’s notion of basic human goodness. Seriously, my time in rural Georgia taught me that the meanest people can also be the kindest.
As we head into the 2024 election campaigns and the litigation of charges against Trump and the higher-ups who sought to destroy even our hobbled model of democracy, we’re going to be constantly assaulted by the media’s frantic language and imagery of a world spinning out of control. But our mainstream media folks are truly just another brigade of TikTokers — yes, on the left as well as the right — and you do not have to join the lunacy to be true to yourself. Place your hand on your heart and swear allegiance to love of one another rather than the flag.
Cliff Bostock, Ph.D., is a former psychotherapist who offers coaching to people who seek to expand their imagination and creativity (cliffbostock.com). He is not involved in it, but strongly recommends participation in the Atlanta Shambhala Center’s beginning workshop, “The Art of Being Human,” October 7 through 8: atlanta.shambhala.org.