The Good News of Authenticity

In "The Gospel According to 'Me'," Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster shed a harsh light on "the booming self-help industry" and "the cash cow of New Age spirituality."

These economically-driven movements, they argue, have filled the void left by the death of traditional gods and religions, but not to our benefit. Their vapid central message, "be authentic!," along with companion messages like, "Live fully!" and "Realize yourself!," have turned most of us into navel-gazing narcissists. In place of the "naïve belief" of the past, moderns have embraced cynicism and "passive nihilism" that allow us to avoid frightening realities while opting out of anything that doesn't immediately make us feel good.

The authors' most poignant lament is for what is lost when humans turn their gazes inward, to the exclusion of looking around them at what needs to be done. Individual well-being, they note rightly, "has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself." Given the body of evidence from popular media (and probably, if we are honest, given our own inner longings), it is difficult to deny that "psychological transformation," rather than engagement on behalf of the common good, has become an important rallying call for our culture. We don't want to suffer. We want to be happy. What could be more basic?

Still, it would be easier to sympathize with this critique if it were more original, but they come across more or less like anyone who mourns the good old days, when religion was really religion, and people knew their proper roles, did their duties without undue reflection, and didn't ask too much from life apart from food, shelter, and the opportunity to reproduce their genes. In the 16th century, for example, critiques about a surplus of desire for authenticity came from Catholics who longed for the good old days when Lutherans submitted to the pope and didn't ask to relate to Jesus directly (and in turn from Lutherans who whined about Anabaptists insisting on authentically loving their enemies rather than submitting to the governing authorities' calls to arms). In a more contemporary example, the entire plot of Mad Men is basically driven by white men railing against the new insistence of women, African-Americans, and homosexuals that they, too, should have meaningful work and be treated with respect. Or as Critchley and Webster put it, "Every aspect of one's existence is meant to water some fantasy of growth."

Rather than laying the blame squarely on the commercialization, even bastardization of well-being traditions, they come dangerously close to blaming Eastern philosophies, albeit in caricature. "At the heart of the ethic of authenticity," they write, "is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others. As the ever-wise Buddha says, 'You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.'" But in reality one will search the sayings of the Buddha in vain for a command to be authentic. On the contrary, the overriding take-away message of Buddhist literature is "Be compassionate!" -- including toward oneself -- which arises from a number of specifics: See rightly. Act rightly. Speak rightly. Take refuge, not in your own feelings, but in truth and in the community of those who seek truth. Meanwhile, organizations like Off the Mat Into the World belie the idea that yoga practice ends with savasana.

While Critchley and Webster do not supply an alternative end for us to work toward, Eastern and Western wisdom traditions (which "required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity" and imposed "bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest") have always included threads pointing us toward peace and human flourishing. And really, is there anything truly wrong with wanting to flourish rather than merely survive or endure? A genuine sense of well-being, of the sort not dependent upon dumb luck or harming others, can often be a sign that we are doing something right, that we are connected to the world in life-giving ways. "Authentic" peace is not built on mutually-assured destruction, and "authentic" human flourishing is not based on theft or on the destruction of biodiversity. These arise instead when we see that our own true benefit is entirely, and authentically, interdependent with others'.

By all means, let us be suspicious of any kind of self-help that offers only short-term pleasure to tickle our narcissistic sensors. But the craving for authenticity should also be understood as a response to centuries of soul-crushing repression, both endogenous and exogenous. Let us not therefore discount the possibility that our idea of the common good must evolve to reach our innermost selves, as well as to include everyone.