What is Authentic?

I love the word “authentic”. It calls up a sense of groundedness that appeals to me. It feels simple and solid, like a Shaker bench built of hand-stripped maple.

Unfortunately, this humble word has been pounded to a pulp by the mills of mass media. Magazine covers, neon signs and Oprah are all competing to be “authentic”. You can buy an authentic hamburger and sign up for authentic insurance and read about the latest authentic tv star, complete with pictures of her on her microfiber sofa in her sweats, with a cup of steaming tea. Like so many other otherwise great concepts, authenticity is being devalued by overuse.

The irony here should not be overlooked. The very media override that guides our mass culture–the one that makes true authenticity necessary for spiritual survival–is doing its best to erode it. Not on purpose, but as a side effect of half-assed popularity.

So please allow me to speak up for authenticity. Nothing could be more important in a land of plastic franchise than to be authentic, personally and in our collective activities. By this I mean to know yourself and to act accordingly. This is a time-consuming undertaking, one that requires courage to look within and then to speak out. If you don’t know yourself, you can’t speak your truth. You’ll be forced to pick up the latest ideas floating on the mired surface and play them off as your own.

I won’t tell you how to get to know yourself, other than to suggest some quiet and some solitude. You probably know this already, but I’ll remind you because quiet and solitude are themselves fairly rare birds these days.

I might not even get into the whole authenticity thing if I believed any less in its power as an antidote to commercialism. I have traveled the country extensively, and I’ll illustrate the difference. Authentic: the Wyoming mountain man who served fresh trout and shelled peas for dinner, right after touring my friend and I through his sewing room, where he spent the winters quilting. Inauthentic: Western-style hotel decor, replete with kitschy metalwork, pine beams and paintings of elk. Authentic: the southeastern Utah badlands, which stagger the imagination with their stark beauty, striking colors and soaring emptiness. Inauthentic: Disney World’s molded plaster-and-paint simulations, which are such a far cry from the real thing as to make one weep. Authentic: Monterey Bay, with its tidepools brimming over with scuttling sea creatures. Inauthentic: Sea World.

What’s the difference? The authentic people, places and experiences are just being themselves, as they are, without embellishments. The real article is always more enchanting.

To be authentic is to be real, to be honest, to be uncovered, to be direct. To be authentic is to be flawed and to be vulnerable. To be authentic is to be human, and to recognize and respect the world as it is.

We need you to be authentic. Sometimes it feels as if our society is being paved over with mass-marketed items and ideas. But really, I don’t think that mass anything can ever completely overwhelm the fierce blaze of a person who speaks from the heart. Just as the Romans could never quite conquer the British Isles, all you have to do is be a little bit beyond reach to keep your own counsel. Stay true to yourself and you dance just outside of the danger zone. You also embolden others to move toward the outer circles, where all the fun is anyhow.

So speak the truth today. Breathe deep. Smile at a stranger–or tell someone off, I don’t care. Just do it from the soul.

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~ by robinomayberry on December 29, 2010.

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