Today I was talking long-distance to my friend Sally in Maine and mentioned that I wanted to write something on “authenticity.” (Sally and I are lifelong friends.) Her comment? “Authenticity is staying friends over a lifetime.”
Why was that so surprising? And why did it sound true?
First, surprising. The received notion of authenticity involves “alienation”. The authentic type is supposed to feel oppressed by the pressures of society — always seen as a den of pretense and falsity. The creative artist, the transgressor of rules, is considered authentic, while the moral man or woman is thought merely conventional — unable to make the big breakthrough.
This species of authenticity gets unleashed in a world threaded through and through with mutual promises. So the man or woman who seems unconfined by these reciprocities can play on our own longing to be as free and wild as nature itself. “No,” says the presumed envoy from wild nature, “You can’t hold me to anything I’ve said previously; I am true to myself; I won’t be bound by anyone else’s expectations.”
Predators can gain power – seductive, institutional or political – by leaving people’s expectations unmet. When the normal reciprocities are suddenly short-circuited, one gets paralyzed. One cannot tell how to cope. Predators can be keen spotters of the web of promises in social life – spoken and unspoken — and their chief pleasure may be the sheer triumphant thrill of smashing the web.
So why did Sally’s saying that a lifelong friend is authentic seem to me true? Our lives become tellable stories, if anyone is listening. The ones who keep their promises will also keep our stories going forward. They need not flatter every whim or preference but — when we need to tell what really happened in our lives – the loyal ones will stay the course. That’s authenticity.