Where Logic Meets Love

The Price of Authenticity

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

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The Price of Authenticity | Faith Permeating Life
The comments on Sunday's post got me thinking about authenticity. If the cultural message is to be inauthentic in our romantic relationships -- in other words, to adopt a particular persona rather than doing whatever comes naturally -- is there an expectation we would be authentic in any part of our lives? After all, aren't your romantic relationships supposed to be your most intimate relationships? If you're putting up a front there, aren't you putting up a front everywhere?

This reminded me of something that happened the summer before I started college. (I'm smiling to myself right now because I have at least one reader who might remember this incident.) I was at a weeklong orientation at my college for the members of the scholars program I was in. The week was packed full of activities, tours, and speakers (faculty and staff of the college).

One speaker was a political science professor who came to talk to us about something vague, something like life goals. I remember he ended up contradicting himself and not really making a clear point, but maybe that was because I threw him off so much. See, early in his presentation, he asked a question: "Who here pretends to be someone they're not?"

The question really confused me, and I was curious to see who would raise their hand to such a question. As it turned out, everyone did. Everyone but me. Not being one to cave to peer pressure, though, I kept my hand down. Which, in itself, proved my truthfulness, I guess.

Apparently he was not expecting this, because he felt the need to single me out and pressure me to agree. He elaborated on his question. "You know, if you're telling a story to a friend, you might make things up, so you look better." This had never occurred to me (which might explain why I generally suck at telling stories, and tend to interrupt other people when they get details wrong). He provided several other examples, none of which really struck a chord with me, and then gave up and decided to proceed with his lecture.

As I said, I really messed up the flow of things for him, because he then had to sarcastically qualify most of his statements: "Everyone -- except Jessica, of course..." "You know when you... unless you're Jessica." I sat there, embarrassed but defiant, during the whole thing, seething.

When I got home, I asked my best friend, "Do you think I pretend to be someone I'm not?" She seemed taken aback and asked what I meant, and I explained what had happened. She said no, she thought I was very true to myself, and said when I'd asked that, she'd thought I was about to reveal some big secret, which would have shocked her.

This is not intended to come off as, "Look at me, I'm so authentic, I'm awesome." What I've been thinking about is that, despite the lip service paid to "being yourself," it can have a great social cost to actually follow that advice. Here I was, a shy first-year student who hadn't really made any friends yet, being publicly called out in front of everyone for refusing to just go with the flow.

In middle school, when I chose to be on the gifted "team" for my core classes, our team was ostracized not just by the other kids but by the administrators as well, who refused to acknowledge our team's number when calling off teams but would instead call "7-0," "7-1," and "...the gifted kids" or "anyone else I didn't call." About half of the kids on our team managed to straddle the social lines, working hard enough at school to stay on the team but not hard enough that they couldn't be popular. I, on the other hand, embraced my nerdiness and made friends with those who did the same.

Growing up I damaged more than one friendship by speaking out when I didn't like the way someone was being treated, rather than turning a blind eye or just gossiping about it like everyone else. At the time, I couldn't understand how friends could say to me, "You're right, that's terrible, you should go talk to her," and then turn around and say, "I can't believe Jessica said that to you." But now I get that it was a game of alliances that I never quite mastered, and so I made enemies instead. I've found that whenever I've pissed people off in my life, it generally comes from speaking too bluntly and not sugar-coating my thoughts.

One of my happiness commandments is "Be Jessica," and for me that's not so much about finding out who I am and acting that way as it is being OK with the fact that who I am doesn't always fit with social norms. It's catching myself when I think, "I wish I were ________" and just celebrating who I am, no matter the consequences.

I think that, at the end of the day, living with integrity is even more important than being happy. It leads to its own kind of happiness: the ability to point to your life, to your actions, and say, "This is who I am, just as God made me."

On a related note, this post is particularly interesting because the author chose to not to do something that would make her son happy in order to help him fit in better. It raises an interesting question about whether parents ought to try to insulate their kids from bullying by helping them seem more "average" and not stand out.

What do you think? Is being yourself, no matter the cost, worth it, or is it worth trying to play the game sometimes to fit in? And is it more important to fit in when you're younger and less self-confident?


  1. That professor was a real jerk!!!

    I have to agree, integrity is more important than being happy. In the long run, with any luck at all, integrity will make you happier than fronting. Both my dad and I were surprised at high school reunions by how much people who had been in the "popular crowd" wanted to talk to us now, some of them directly expressing some admiration for how we had grown into ourselves as adults and/or how we had been willing to stick to unpopular opinions and interests in high school. Those people who had done everything "right" to stay at the top of the pecking order mostly peaked in high school and have led uninteresting lives since.

    One time I (as an adult) was complaining to my mother about how I'd been teased as a child because my family and I were non-conformist, and she said, "Would it have been better for you if I dressed like the other mothers and kept our house like theirs and only let you wear the trendy clothes?" Suddenly I felt a wrenching despair. No, no, it would have been so much worse! Because it might have stopped the teasing, but it would have kept me uncomfortable ALL THE TIME, with no sweetly weird home to retreat to! It was good to realize, and acknowledge to my mom, that she did the right thing (in that regard) after all.

    But I see both sides of "whether parents ought to try to insulate their kids from bullying by helping them seem more "average" and not stand out"--my son likes flowers, sparkles, and playing with a dollhouse, all "girl" things. Like the mom in your link, I resist buying things I know he'd love that are girly, if he's not with me. But when he's with me and asks for things, I talk him through it: "Some people will say it's for girls. They'll tease you about it. Is it worth it?" That decision is his to make. (Within reason. I wouldn't buy him girls' underpants if he wanted them.)

  2. @'Becca
    You know, he was actually a very well-loved professor at my school, and it took several years before I could stop seeing him as a jerk and acknowledge that he was actually a good guy who made a bad decision in the moment.

    I've been surprised at how many people I know (friends from high school and college) have read my blog and then expressed admiration for my point of view. I'm always kind of nervous when people I know read my blog because I'm kind of just putting my whole self out there, and I know that I can rub people the wrong way sometimes. That kind of affirmation for just being oneself, like you got at your reunion, is nice. (I'm kind of sad our high school doesn't have reunions as it would be fun to see what everyone's up to. I guess that's what Facebook's for now :P)

    I love that you treat your son so maturely and respectfully. I think that's smart to have the conversation about teasing ahead of time, so it becomes his decision how important it is to fit in, and if he decides not to then it's a conscious decision.


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