THERE is one piece of advice that you hear everywhere today in all sorts of contexts. It’s a big mantra for the self-help book and seminar industry. It turns up in everything from celebrity interviews and children’s books, to high-brow literature and philosophical discussions of ethical dilemmas. To disagree with it is almost unthinkable. It is this: ”Be true to yourself.”
Michael Clarke said it when discussing his tattoos. Popstar Rihanna said it when asked about what she was wearing, or not wearing, in her music videos. Dr Seuss’ eponymous Cat in the Hat said it well: ”Be who you are and say what you feel.”
As advice goes, it is hard to fault. The alternative is to risk being manipulated by someone else and then act in a way that is out of character. No one likes a fake or a phoney. Think of the merciless criticism of Lana Del Rey for supposedly pretending to be something she’s not. And who can forget ”the real Julia”?
”Be true to yourself” is for some another way of saying live life to the full, think for yourself and be willing to stand out from the crowd. Psychologists generally regard authenticity as a basic requirement for mental health. Karen Wright, for example, argues that ”authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological wellbeing, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills”. In short, being who you are is highly recommended.
Yet some qualification of our enthusiasm for authenticity might be needed. In a pluralistic society, where there are few agreed norms of behaviour, we often resort to ourselves as the measure of things. The problem is that virtues such as patience, kindness and faithfulness can take a back seat to having integrity and being genuine. Authenticity can, in fact, be an excuse for questionable behaviour. If I do something that is inconsiderate of others or even harmful to myself, I can just claim I am being true to myself.
What if my self is selfish? After all, the dishonest friend, the greedy workaholic, the malicious gossip and the abusive spouse, when they behave in character, and hurt others, can all claim to be true to themselves. The biggest problem with the slogan is that to be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. And these days more and more people are unsure of their true identity.
In the past, an individual’s identity was more established and predictable than it is today. Many of the big questions in life were basically settled before you were born: where you’d live, what you’d do, the type of person you’d marry, your basic beliefs, and so on. It’s not that there was no choice. Rather, the shape of your life was moulded by constraints to an extent that limited your choices. Today we are literally spoilt for choice.
According to theologian Peter Leithart, our world destabilises the self by uprooting people from the traditional fixity of place, custom and community. He points out that in the Western world today our sense of belonging and identity is not supported by continual contact with the same set of friends, the same family members, the same co-workers. Leithart paints a picture of a society marked by fragmentation and fluidity, where relationships are temporary and loose. In this context, self-fashioning is the order of the day and self-knowledge is superficial at best.
Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists, compliments religion for modelling the values of habituation, reflection, embodiment and community. Another important contribution of faith communities is in helping people to find a secure and satisfying personal identity. In the case of Christian faith, rather than finding or defining yourself, there is a deep sense of being known by God, which is in turn thought to be the key to knowing who we are. Looking beyond ourselves in order to be found might just be the key ingredient if we are to avoid an ocean of confusion and anxiety.
This article first appeared in The Age, 6 April, 2012.