I am currently reading Happiness and the Good Life, by philosopher Mike W. Martin. This week, I was working on Chapter 4, “Authenticity.” As Martin notes, there is surely some connection between authenticity and happiness. It is important to us that the life we live is true to who we really are. The importance of authenticity is perhaps made most clear in its absence. Living a life that seems out of touch with who we really are is frustrating, constraining, and saddening. It’s like walking around in clothes that don’t fit. “Know thyself” was one of the pieces of advice carved into the Temple to Apollo at Delphi. “To thine ownself be true,” Polonius advises his son Laertes in Hamlet. (I’ll let some of the Shakespeare scholars out there discuss what we should make of the fact that this advice is given by Polonius.) So there are at least two challenges we have to face in order to live authentic lives: we need to figure out who we are, and we need to construct a life that aligns with our authentic self.
1. Knowing Oneself
What do we mean when we say talk about “who we really are”? How can I claim that the true me is out of step with how I’m actually living? Why shouldn’t my life as I actually live it have better claim on being the real me than some vision I might have of myself that isn’t being realized? Part of what might be at work here is that each of us comes equipped with a psyche abuzz with activity. We like to think we have a cohesive self, but we’re actually going about a dozen different directions at once. The search for the true self is partly a project of ordering and prioritizing all these different parts of us.
In Quadrophenia, the rock opera by the Who, the main character wrestles with this question. Jimmy is an adolescent trying to figure out who he his. He feels different versions of himself, or perhaps different parts of himself, crashing against each other within his psyche. He decides that he’s not just schizophrenic; he’s quadropenic. The second cut on the album, “The Real Me,” sets out what he’s facing.
Interestingly, a parallel dynamic was also at work in the band. All four members were strong, idiosyncratic performers. At their best, they fused these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. This is certainly at work in “The Real Me.” We get Townsend’s visceral power chords, Entwhistle’s amazing bass runs, Moon’s ferocious drumming, and Daltrey’s powerful vocal. This parallel dynamic is reflected in the cover art for the album, as the faces of the four band members are reflected in the mirrors of Jimmy’s mod scooter.
Thus, one way of thinking of the challenge of knowing ourselves is figuring out how we can pull as many strong parts of ourselves into a cohesive whole. And this might better be described as a project of construction, rather than a project of discovery. We put together the puzzle, trying to get as many pieces to fit as we can.
2. Living Authentically
One of the points that Martin makes in his book is that it’s not simply the case that authenticity is a guide to happiness. The relationship is more complex than that, he claims, since happiness can be a guide to authenticity. As we try on different masks, as we give different parts of ourselves more rein, we gain clues to our authentic self by the way in which our happiness is increased or frustrated.
A more unsettling possibility is that happiness and authenticity might pull apart. What should we do when our authentic self leads us along a path of chaos and unhappiness? Should we follow our true self, happiness be damned? Or should we say that authenticity is overrated and be willing to settle into a happier, less authentic life? Maybe these concepts are fuzzy enough that, without herculean effort we can convince ourselves that the chaotic path was not our true self anyway.