Living Authentically

If you ask the internet for general life advice, it might tell you to "live authentically." This mission has become a way to brand our lifestyles, a hashtag-worthy catchphrase like "You do you," "Keep it real," and "I woke up like this." Perhaps it's no coincidence that as we create virtual identities, we insist upon our authenticity. But what does it really mean to live authentically?

In the field of psychology, authenticity means living in accordance with one's values, beliefs, desires and needs. The opposite - being inauthentic - means self-alienation, being out of touch with oneself or submitting to external pressures. Research suggests that feeling authentic is key to our wellbeing, career success, interpersonal relationships and self-esteem. Brené Brown defines authenticity as living without pretences:

"Authenticity is a collection of choices we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen."

Be true to yourself. It seems simple enough, until we ask ourselves the age-old philosophical question, what is my true self? Rousseau believed that we achieve authenticity by following an inner source, a true self that functions as a predetermined and fixed touchstone. To an extent, the idea that our innate personalities should guide our paths in life resonates with Rousseau's idea of authenticity. According to Heidegger, authenticity is literally "being one's own" or "being one's self," a state we achieve by having a larger conception of our purpose or life-project. Rejecting the idea of a pregiven true self, Heidegger believed that our true self is a work in progress, unfolding in time as we project various possible choices into the future. Authenticity entails accountability: to live authentically, we must own and own up to our choices and actions. Sartre linked our authenticity to our ability to choose freely; "bad faith" means thinking that our identity is unchangeable. Foucault also dismissed the goal of uncovering one authentic "true self." Drawing upon askesis, an ancient Greek model of knowing and caring for the self, he insisted that we must create ourselves as works of art.

In short, you do you. This can be empowering advice, a call to free ourselves from social norms and external pressures. But this way of envisioning authenticity also seems self-indulgent. If I do me and you do you, and we focus our energy on self-fashioning, how much will we be invested in matters beyond ourselves? Is authenticity a selfish concept? Contemporary thinkers have tried to explain how the pursuit of authenticity may benefit society as a whole, and how our commitments may uphold a larger structure of values or morals. For instance, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that our identity and authenticity depend on our relationships to others and the world around us:

"I can define my identity only against a background of things that matter. But to bracket out history, nature, society, the demands of solidarity, everything but what I find in myself, would be to eliminate all candidates for what matters. Only if I exist in the world in which history, or the demands of nature, or the needs of my fellow human beings, or the duties of citizenship, or the call of God, or something else of this order matters crucially, can I define an identity for myself that is not trivial. Authenticity is not the enemy of demands that emanate from beyond the self; it supposes such demands."

According to Taylor, if being authentic means doing "what matters," authenticity requires us to understand our roles, responsibilities and values within an overarching social and environmental order. Our authenticity hinges upon how we exist as participants in the world - how our choices affect ourselves and, dialogically, others. 

Is authenticity a useful goal? It is fair to deem one lifestyle more authentic than another? I can't say that living authentically has ever been an explicit aspiration of mine. At the same time, living inauthentically sounds like a betrayal of something important, so maybe these questions are worth asking.

Noteworthy

Happy March! I spent the last day of February writing greetings for a certain holiday that occurred two weeks ago. Better late than never, right? The cards in the photo are by the lovely and talented Laura Uy. I discovered Laura through social media and finally made a purchase from her Etsy shop Art + Soul: the two cards above, plus this one for my Valentine. Laura's cards feature adorable illustrations and witty puns; there are even Lord of the Rings cards for your loved ones, featuring Gollum ("You are my precious") and Gimli ("Gimli all your love"), among other characters. To see more of Laura's art, follow her on Instagram @artandsoulcreativeco

If you love Rome and Italian food, you will enjoy the blog Parla Food. Katie shares her knowledge of Roman history, food, and culture through well-researched posts and videos. I'm eagerly awaiting the release of her book Really Roman and wishing in the meantime that I could teleport to Rome for a steaming bowl of Cacio e Pepe. (And che coincidenza, I heard Katie Parla on NPR this morning!) While we're on the subject of food blogs, in case you haven't already, you should go get inspired by the beautiful photography of Local Milk and Artful Desperado

In February I started doing the ballet-inspired workout Ballet Beautiful, which I refer to as the "Black Swan workout" because Mary Helen Bowers was Natalie Portman's trainer for the film. I danced on and off for years, and although I consider myself to be in fairly good shape, this gets my muscles burning. 

Renee Engeln's TED Talk on "beauty sickness" resonated with me. She's a good speaker, and what she has to say is so important. 

And for posterity's sake, I have to include the social media controversy you've all seen by now: is it blue and black or white and gold? I saw white and gold at first glance; then I looked away, looked back, and saw blue and black, unmistakably. I don't even understand how I saw white and gold before. What do you see? 

On Sneak-Reading: Dear Sugar

From time to time, I sneak-read self-help books. This genre is full of promises to transform us: prescriptions for success based on personality types, "scientifically substantiated" manifestos on what to eat, ten ways to unlock an intangible force within you. At heart, I share a fundamental belief with this multibillion dollar industry: books can change us. But the ones that claim explicitly to do so are often sanctimonious, formulaic, and questionable. If you, like me, feel like this about the genre of self-help, you might be familiar with sneak-reading, and probably its cousin snark-reading. 

This past week, I sneak-read (snuck-read?) Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of letters that Strayed wrote for her online advice column "Dear Sugar." It's the perfect book to fill brief gaps in a busy schedule - a letter here, a letter there, just one more before bedtime. The letters are from men and women, young and old, writing about deeply personal insecurities, uncertainties: loss and love in many permutations. Although an advice column is a form of self-help, the epistolary form guards against the sort of generalizations endemic to this genre. Strayed a.k.a Sugar gives anecdotal advice, tailored to a particular reader's problems and striking different chords in different people amongst her wider readership. The letters often deal with overcoming crisis, a subject that also motivates her acclaimed memoir Wild (currently in my to-read pile). Despite using terms of endearment like "darling" and "honey bun," Sugar sugarcoats sparingly, unreserved in pointing out our arrogance, flawed logic, or misguided priorities. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, and humility is one of the most powerful forces to emerge from them. In one of the early letters, Strayed quotes Flannery O'Connor's observation that "The first product of self-knowledge is humility." From her letters, it seems that the first product of humility is empathy. 

Sneak-reading is a product of pride. We don't want to be associated with self-help, a genre that so often peddles literary snake oil. We don't want to need "advice on love and life" because that makes us sound like we're broken and need fixing. But Strayed's goal isn't to fix anything: she comforts, confesses, reasons, accepts, and encourages us all to do the same. The letters to Sugar represent a breadth of hardships, most of which I have not experienced, but Strayed's responses often create a lump in my throat, that feeling of making someone else's emotions my own. 

About halfway through Tiny Beautiful Things, my sneak-reading gave way to rather public proclamations of love for this bookI plan to give it to friends with a big fat inscription inside that says "READ THIS please." I'd give one to all of you if I could. 

Winter Knitting

This winter I'm re-learning how to knit. It's a very forgiving hobby, even if you're a beginner like me. It's also a hobby for giving, for making something with someone else in mind. (Note to self: start before the holidays next time.) Stitches are steady, repetitive, metronomic, maybe even meditative. There's something reassuring in the quiet tick, tick of two wooden needles crossing. And if you mess up, just unravel and start again. 

The project I'm working on right now is a striped baby blanket based on this pattern, which requires minimal knitting knowledge - casting on, garter stitch, changing colors, casting off. To refresh my memory on the basics, I've watched YouTube tutorials galore. YouTube the aforementioned steps and you'll be on your way. I also recommend the book Stitch n' Bitch as an extra (hilarious) reference, complete with projects like "Wonder Woman Bikini" and headings like "Oops, I Knit It Again." This book was my first knitting companion and saw my teenage self through several gaudy, half-finished scarves. 

Why knit a garment when you can buy one for less time and money? Besides the therapeutic and sentimental reasons, it's a good pace-changing exercise in a world of fast, disposable fashion. The whole process makes me more attuned to where the materials are coming from and how long it takes to create knitwear by hand. I value the finished product more because I put my own time and effort into it. Also, knitting has helped me break my terrible habit of double-screen multitasking (you know, doing stuff on your laptop while watching Netflix on your TV...); because this project is so uncomplicated, I can do it as a side task without feeling like my attention is divided. 

Do you knit?