In a world where lives are more curated than lived, what does it mean to be authentic? Or is there even room for authenticity? asks Elizabeth O’Neill
We all know the myth of Narcissus, who is cursed by Nemesis to fall in love with his own reflection and transfixed in the moment to die there lovingly gazing. A plausible modern version could have Narcissus posing with a selfie stick.
A quick internet search will tell you conflicting selfie statistics, including that 1 million of them are taken each day. In 2015, Google reported that 24 billionn selfies were posted on its servers. However, this does not take into account Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook. Another estimate claims that millennials will take 25,700 selfies in a lifetime, or spend one hour a week snapping pictures of themselves. Handstand poses on beaches, abs shots in gyms, eating artisanal sourdough bread or downing craft beer, outside, sun-drenched, all the while screaming #followme, #authenticity, #liveyourtruth.
If this is your truth, well done, you’ve found Utopia. If I do a handstand on a beach, I fall over. If I manage to go to the gym, I leave tomato red and sweaty. When I cook vegan food it’s uniformly brown. And through economic necessity I go to work every day, not to the beach.
These painstakingly recreated poses are just that. They are not real.
The deluge of images are a distant impression of the lived, messy, repetitive, joyful, painful and often mundane, 24/7/365 lived experience. So, in a world where lives are becoming more curated than lived, what does it mean to be authentic? Or is there even room for authenticity?
Are these images just the black Narcissistic pool of our digital age and our digital lives?
We can agree that to live authentically is to be true to yourself, your emotions and your core values.
It’s an idea that’s occupied moral philosophers for centuries, but the idea of an authentic self was given full voice by last century’s Existentialists.
For example, Martin Heidegger felt we could only live an authentic life in the full light of an awareness that we are born to die, but most people distract themselves with pastimes and just getting on with living.
Jean Paul Sartre’s thesis was that if existence precedes essence (i.e. we don’t arrive with our nature hardwired) then we have the full freedom to continually define ourselves. To live an authentic life, we must acknowledge and take full responsibility for the weight of that freedom and our actions.
The problem can be defining our core values when we are constantly changing, biodegrading, and renewing — and yet we are immutable. That is the human paradox. In terms of biology, in our life times the only parts of us that are relatively close to what we are were born with is our brain and our eyes. Molecules in our cells are in constant flux. Our skin renews every two to three weeks, the lining of our intestines every two to three days. Even our hearts renew, up to four times in a life span.
Experientially, we become many residual selves in the one changing body, a Russian doll of ages and milestones. A recently published paper from the University of Edinburgh showed that the characteristics of a group of 174 subjects changed completely from age 14 to 77. This is the longest known study on personality traits and researchers could find no correlations between an original questionnaire given to the subjects in 1947 and the retest in 2012. The people studied had changed irrevocably.
Another problem with a concept of absolute authenticity is the fact that, in a civilised society, we must try to get along together so an authentic self that might want to speak only truths has to be kept in check. My authentic self, given free rein, would spend all day eating crisps and pointing out perceived stupidity and unfairness. I suspect that would lead to unemployment. We have to bend a little to live in this world.
So where does authenticity fit in with our ever changing selves and societal niceties? It must change with us. In this flux, the purpose of looking at ourselves can be for reassurance, to find ourselves looking back. Maybe the selfie is another aspect of this. It could be viewed as a digital catalogue of experience, a constant claim to existence and acknowledgement. “I am in a bikini on the beach. I exist. I am here. I selfie, therefore I am.”
However, presenting this view is more damaging than not. Most of what is out there is designed to make the gazed upon look good and the inauthenticity makes of the rest of us feel bad for having a life more ordinary.
But another side effect is that it can also ultimately leave a residue of guilt on the poser.
A 2015 study published in Psychological Science, found that living inauthentically produces feelings of immorality. In five experiments, researchers reported that being inauthentic “increased desire among participants to cleanse themselves”.
It then falls on us to find the balance, or an intersection between what we value, what we can reasonably represent to the world, and the truth we can tell. Maybe we don’t need to speak more truths, but turn off the filters and show the reality, not the dream.
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