The Burden of Being Authentic

One of my favorite thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre, made a lot of authenticity. In fact, his entire view of how one ought to live is based largely on authenticity. For him, and other thinkers in his vein, human society is made up almost entirely of prefashioned, predetermined roles that we learn and eventually adopt, like roles in a play, by abandoning our own self to “become” the “person” in that role. Sartre recalls a disturbing encounter he had with a waiter once that illustrates this idea well. He recalls watching the waiter make his rounds to the different tables, taking their orders, filling their glasses, asking about their dessert choices, etc. Nothing was really immediately odd about how this waiter was going about his tasks, but it struck Sartre that the man seemed far too interested in what the people wanted to eat. He seemed far too sincere about wondering if the people wanted dessert or not, and a bit too cheery about getting their check to them. Almost surely, most of the customers that had that waiter found their experience more enjoyable for it, and found the service from him exceptional. What was troubling to Sartre though, was that this man was no longer a man – he was a waiter. He wasn’t a person with person interests, person desires, and person-type inner life. He was a waiter whose existence in those moments was totally subordinate to the role he had adopted. For this man, waiting tables wasn’t just a task, it was a distinct mode of being – he wasn’t Steve waiting tables, he was The Waiter, Steve. He was being inauthentic; nearly sacrificing the whole of himself to subtly adopt some other identity entirely. He had no personal project of his own, only wanting to play the role.

This seems to me to be a spot-on interpretation of what was going on with this guy, and I haven’t been able to enjoy a cheerful waiter since I heard Sartre’s account of this experience. I hope you similarly recieve his gift of nausea at such inauthenticity as well, so we’ll be able to identify the inauthenticity in our own lives and foist it. It’s a hard thing to do, especially since so much of society has built-in expectations that one will be inauthentic. Just think: that waiter was likely considered one of the best at the restaurant. Other waiters were probably encouraged to serve their tables with the same cheer and eagerness that he had. If you wait, or work in customer service, you’re certainly accustomed to this very expecation yourself. It’s not just in the job market either. Go to Church: you’re not supposed to look sad there. You’re supposed to adopt a certain persona there, a certain role. Go to a party: you better look good. Hook up at the party? You know the drill. You know your role, and if you break with the expectations of any of these roles, the reaction will be just as if the actor on the stage dropped his persona; the audience is breathless and awkward, the show stops, but only briefly. You will be replaced in the role, and you won’t be asked to act again.

One person who I think has done a particularly good (on one level) at not succumbinig to this pressure to be inauthentic is Madonna (ironically, a professional performer). My friend Josh forwarded me a link to the video below, which I think is a great (even, in ways, inspiring) picture of the refusal to be inauthentic. Watch even the first minute of it and it’s obvious that she’s not about to play nice by slipping into the role of Congenial, Family-friendly Talk Show Guest. She absolutely refuses to join the play that’s going on.  As inspiring as her performance of non-performance is, though, in its illustration of refusal of inauthenticity, it also reveals the painful burden of authenticity itself, and here, Madonna fails utterly.  Watch for a few minutes first.

So here’s the deal. As is obvious, Madonna is certainly not seething with inauthenticity. She’s right on that Letterman’s show is as much of an act as Dawson’s Creek, and she’s not an actress. But she makes a mistake. She seems to think that refusing to be inauthentic makes you profound, and that that’s enough, but it’s not. I think (if I’m getting her right) she’s right on to think that she’s profound in her rejection, but it seems like rejecting inauthenticity is all she has and, though that makes her profound, it also makes her profoundly uninteresting. After about five minutes of watching her buck the show, you can pretty much anticipate every move she makes from then on. She’s not going to allow the game around her to structure her thoughts or language, and so is going to say whatever the hell comes to her mind, no matter what that may be. Profound, but uninteresting, unless you’re something of a voyeur, or you’re thirteen. She simply seems to have no positive project of her own, only the negative project of rejecting inauthenticity, and that reduces her to a socially uninteresting object lesson.

This is the burden of the authentic life. There are really three options for any of us. We can play along by adopting whatever roles are the closest, or the funnest, or the highest paying, or watever, or we can make our project entirely negative by focusing our lives on rejecting the inauthenticity in the world (this is where most teenagers are now, which is what makes shows like Family Guy and South Park so fun for them, because all they do is criticize and reject things for being fake and inauthentic), or we can fully embrace the weight of life, which is the burden and responsibility of being self-creating. This means not only rejecting the inauthenticity in our own selves and calling out inauthenticity around us, but of picking some positive project for our own lives and pursuing it, not out of some social pressure to adopt a part in the play, but out of our own rationally grounded beliefs, desires, and values. This is the burden of personal existence. The fool never gets there, stuck in the play. The coward never gets there, stuck in adolescent cynicism. Only the wise and strong make it, but, at the foundation of this existentialism is the belief that strength and wisdom are choices we make, functions of the will. And, if you have religious beliefs, I think there’s a lot of room in there to see them as gifts one may ask from God as well.


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  1. #1 by James Gray on 1.31.09 - 6.35 pm

    Isn’t being a rebel like Madonna one more role to play? Teenagers try to be rebellious and difficult quite often, but I wouldn’t call that being authentic. Also, isn’t “trying to be authentic” one more role Oprah wants us to?

    Sartre had an interest in Heidegger who saw “authentic” as doing something “for oneself,” but still tied to the “opinion of others” (Das Man). Hiedegger didn’t think it was possible to ever fully envision a completely new “role.” All of our ideas are based on the ideas of others.

  2. #2 by Michael Glawson on 1.31.09 - 6.57 pm

    James, I think that you’re right that many people actually ironically conform to inauthenticity by being rebels, and maybe that is exactly what Madonna is doing. As you can see, I am being critical of her here, but I think that she’s made something of a step in the right direction, whatever she’s done. It takes insight and strength to reject such a rewarding part in the play as Guest on Letterman (though maybe that’s easier for someone who’s already famous?).

    As for Oprah, it sounds like you share my disdain for her, but I don’t want to assume that everything she said is wrong just because I think she’s a fairly stupid person, and that her show sucks. Still, there’s a difference between a) the self-justifying new-age-y authenticity she proposes, which says that our ultimate goal is to be faithful to our own inner desires, feelings, and intentions, and so leaves no room to ever criticize anyone in any meaningful way, and b) the authenticity I propose here, where I say that we ought to guide our lives in light of rationally grounded desires, values, beliefs, etc., and I think that ‘rational’ part ousts Oprah’s suggestion.

    As for Heidegger, I don’t know much about him beyond the most basic concepts of Being and Time. I do wonder though, when you say that “[a]ll of our ideas are based on the ideas of others”, where you got that idea, and where that person got it, and so on. 😉

  3. #3 by James Gray on 2.2.09 - 2.19 am

    The “we get ideas from others” was an idea of Heideggers, and might have come from elsewhere to some extent. The idea is something like: You can realize that 2+2=4, but first you have to learn the idea of addition. This idea was part of Being and Time and that is about all I have studied of his as well. Basically he says that “the they” (das man) is what determines our interpretation of the world and so on. In other words, others tell us what to think.

    I do think we would like to be able to do something “new” and original in our lives. To live the same exact kind of life as everyone else is an unsatisfying notion. But what we believe is “original” is usually just an elaboration or mixture of ideas. Philosophers have had to do exactly that throughout history, but the first philosophers seemed to be the most original (Heraclitus, Parmenades, Thales, and Democritus, for example).

    I don’t know a lot about Sartre but I suspect he wanted more than just for us to live using rationality. The waiter might be able to fully rationalize his behavior based on trying to enjoy his job and make money and so forth.

  4. #4 by Josh P on 2.8.09 - 5.33 pm

    Hadn’t heard that story about Sartre before. It shines a brighter light on something I’ve wondered: Why do actors always consider waiting tables a fall-back job? Having never been a waiter nor consider myself an actor, it comes up often. I guess it’s the most readily accessible job where Performance is the highest requirement.

    Allow me to digress in a moment of levity: The comedian Jim Gaffigan has a joke about actors and waiters, “People say ‘The food must be good here; our waiter could be a model.’ You think it would be the other way around? ‘The food must be good here; our waiter is fat as hell. I’m definitely having an appetizer. I bet he’s had all of them.'”

    And thanks for the shout-out.

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