Become who you are.
Thoughts of Authenticity often conflate two different questions: (1) the impersonal, “what is the meaning of Self?” and (2) the more personal, “what is the meaning of myself?” The first suggests universality, the concept of Self that applies to everyone. The second suggests particularity, inviting each of us to consider our unique selves. I’ll say a bit about the universal self and follow up with some discussion of what I learned about myself in the second yearly meditation on Authenticity (check out Year 3: Authenticity).
The Universal Self
Two broad theories of the universal Self have been offered by philosophers: that of self-discovery, often referred to as essentialism, and that of self-creation, often referred to as existentialism. Typically, essentialism and existentialism are presented as opposing views, contradicting one another. I’ll argue that both are required for understanding ourselves. A metaphor will be helpful. Imagine that an acorn represents essentialism whereas an oak tree represents existentialism.
We search for the acorn. We dig around, look under leaves, peel back layers of earth, and if we’re lucky, we find it. We discover it directly, hold it in our hands, and examine it carefully. The acorn is static, unchanging. It remains the same no matter how long we look at it or how many different angles we analyze it from. But we can also plant the acorn. Planting the seed is necessary for the tree to grow.
Discover the acorn to unlock your potential.
We create the oak tree indirectly. Not by continuing to focus on the acorn or even the tree but by cultivating good soil, watering the appropriate amounts, and providing ample sunlight. The oak tree sprouts and changes as a dynamic, living thing. It simultaneously grows upward toward the sun and downward into the interconnected mycelium. It feels the seasons, ebbing and flowing with the environment. Cells being destroyed and created each second. There’s nothing necessary about the oak tree; it is pure possibility. Maybe it never grows. Maybe it’s the tallest tree in the forest. Each limb, each shred of bark, each ring, each leaf creating the tree’s new form each day, each minute.
Create the oak tree by nurturing its environment.
Returning to the universal concept of Self, which best captures authenticity: the acorn or the oak tree? In my Year 3: Authenticity post, I concluded that you become your authentic self by removing the shoulds imposed on you by yourself and others and by tuning into what you really want. Digging out from under the shoulds to discover what you really want sounds a lot like self-discovery or essentialism. You’re trying to find your acorn, which represents your unique set of desires.
It’s incredible how good we are at hiding our deepest desires from ourselves. A crucial task of authenticity is unlocking your acorns. Examples of hidden acorns might be uncovering repressed sexual or gender identity, realizing a new talent or admitting you hate doing the thing you’ve got talent for, discovering that your current career path/relationship/hobby is not what you really want or finding out that what you really want is something else entirely, like becoming a parent. Some of us have more hidden acorns than others.
Does this mean I am committed to essentialism? I’m afraid so. I believe that to live authentically, we must discover our acorns–what we really want in our heart-of-hearts. And that’s not always clear to us, and so we must dig and search and seek and listen and tune in and tune out until we find ourselves. Unfortunately, sometimes the self-discovery hurts the people we love, and that’s hard.
Does this commitment to essentialism mean there’s no place for the oak tree? Certainly not! The Self is more than the Authentic Self. Any viable concept of the universal Self must make room for the Evolving Self. Discovering the acorn is necessary for creating the oak tree. We must unlock our deepest desires—who we truly are separate from others’ expectations of us—before we can nurture the Evolving Self. Without a seed, the tree will never grow to its fullest potential (or, like, at all).
And yet, to nurture the Evolving Self we must focus on everything but ourselves. Staring at the acorn as though it holds the key to unlocking all of us amounts to nothing more than naval gazing. No matter how many different angles we view the acorn from, it will remain the same. Stagnant. We must plant the seed underground—out of sight, out of mind—and turn to the sky instead. Will the seed get enough sunlight here? Examine the quality of the soil. Does it have the right balance of nutrients and minerals? Assess nearby water sources. Turn to the environment to nurture the budding tree.
The universal Self is comprised of two things: the Authentic Self and the Evolving Self. While we must unlock the Authentic Self to see the potential of the Evolving Self, once that’s done, authenticity simply flows through each emotion, action, experience, and decision we make. Without thought, without focusing on “am I being authentic?” we are able to live authentically while growing and changing.
What About Myself?
The real surprise of my second year spent with Authenticity was that, at the end of the day, authenticity doesn’t matter all that much (after you’ve discovered your acorn). It’s a one and done sort of activity in many cases, and the more we choose to focus on it, the less energy we can put into nurturing our environments and community for mutual growth.
To be fair, if you haven’t found your acorn yet, the search (or the cover-up) can be all-consuming. If you’re living your life under all those shoulds or if you’re in denial about an essential part of yourself or if you just don’t know what’s going on but something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s nearly impossible to focus, in a deep and connected way, on nurturing much of anything. I get it. I was there.
In my second year of Authenticity, I came out as queer, ended a 10-year relationship with my (cis, hetero, male) partner, and built a “broken” home for our kiddo. While that admission of queerness and the subsequent fallout was terribly painful, it made room for me to become who I am today. And today, I’m well on my way to fabulous. Join me?
I pulled The Moon card, and the first line in my guidebook says, “The full moon brings out the weirdos.” Oh, fuck yes. My nickname in middle school was “the weird girl,” and boy am I getting in touch with my roots. Hold on tight—shit’s about to get wild and weird and wonderful. Love to you all.