Cape House Books invites you to read chapter 5 of True Resilience by Gail Wagnild. For more information about the book or to order a copy, visit our True Resilience page.
Chapter 5: Authenticity
“I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that’s more terrible than dying.”
—Joan of Arc
In this chapter you will learn:
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Steve Jobs was a bold nonconformist who lived his dream. He dared to be wrong. He dared to appear stupid to his colleagues, friends, and family. He could have settled for the status quo and still have led a very satisfying life, but he didn’t. He found his own true north and went there. Although Steve Jobs died a wealthy man, leaving behind approximately eight billion dollars, making money was not his dream. In a 1993 interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said, “Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful … that’s what matters to me.” 1
Some people spend their whole life not knowing who they are or where they want to go, much less how to get there. They end up with a lifetime of regrets, wishing they’d done things differently. For thousands of years people have asked who they are and where they’re going. The answers you can give to these questions are the foundation of your individuality; they are the key to every decision you make and every action you take. If you lie awake at night pondering these questions you know that you don’t want to waste another minute trying to be someone you aren’t or doing things that don’t fit who you are.
An authentic life comes in many forms. Kristin Kimball, Harvard graduate, farmer, and author of The Dirty Life, “found” herself ten years ago when she had just turned thirty. A single woman and writer living in Manhattan, she traveled to Pennsylvania to interview a farmer about the local farm movement. It wasn’t in her plans to abandon her glamorous career and leave behind everything she thought was important. Together, she and the farmer founded Essex Farm in 2004. Even her father felt sad that they were working so hard on something that he was sure would ultimately fail. But she didn’t fail and, in the process, she discovered herself. She said, “You don’t measure things like that with words like success or failure … Satisfaction comes from trying hard things and then going on to the next hard thing, regardless of the outcome. What mattered was whether or not you were moving in a direction you thought was right.” 2
What does it mean to live an authentic life?
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you really are.”
Do you know of any people who took considerable risks to remain true to their beliefs and values? Perhaps they did something as simple as going against the advice of others. Perhaps their actions went against common wisdom and appeared foolish. Maybe one ditched a “great” job in order to start a business, or another decided late in a successful life to prepare for a new career. Maybe you know a mother of young children who joined the military, or someone who declined a job promotion because he wanted to spend more time at home. All these people made the difficult choice, but they also made the choice that was right for them. By living a life that’s meaningful to you, one that you know in your heart is right, you’ll strengthen your resilience.
Resilient people have the courage to do or say what they think is right no matter who disagrees with them. They live a life that fits them—not one they want others to admire. How many times have you conversed with someone who’s outwardly successful but lacks that strategic fit between who they really are, what they do, and what they have become? Usually it takes only minutes of conversation before you become aware of the discrepancies.
Resilient people understand that they alone can choose their direction in life. No one else can. No one knows another’s heart, not really. Frequently, people let life distract them from understanding, or even looking at, their own wants and needs. Resilient people pursue lives consistent with their deeply held beliefs and values. Before that kind of success is possible, though, they have to know those beliefs and values in detail.
Authenticity brings out courage, creativity, and conviction
The pursuit of individuality comes with costs. It’s risky business. At times the pursuit can result in self-doubts and feelings of insecurity because you may envision a lifestyle and future no one else can imagine. You may have to take a stand to be true to yourself or risk punishment when you do what you know to be right. Individuality can be a very lonely place. Out of sincere concern, friends, family members, coworkers, and others may discourage you, try to talk you down. Some may even grow angry at you, reject you, and finally abandon you. But when you choose the life path that is uniquely yours, your resilience will grow because you’ll be living authentically. Such a life is intrinsically and deeply rewarding. Once you begin experiencing an authentic life, you’ll never turn back.
People who live authentically are willing to risk everything in order to remain true to their values and beliefs. Twenty-one-year-old Marine Sergeant Dakota Meyer saw his duty clearly on September 8, 2009. He was outside the village of Ganjgal in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. He heard on the radio that three U.S. Marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman were missing after being ambushed by a group of insurgents in the village. Despite orders to stay out of Ganjgal, he knew the right thing to do was to go in and get the missing men, which he did in a daring rescue mission. Despite shrapnel wounds to his arm, he made four trips to recover wounded soldiers and find the missing U.S. team members. Under heavy enemy fire, he made a fifth and last trip on foot to locate and recover the bodies of his team members. During the six-hour fight against Taliban insurgents, he saved thirty-six comrades. In an ABC interview he said, “I would do it a hundred times.” 3
Andrée Peel, who lived to 105, was known as Agent Rose during World War II. She worked against the German occupation of France. As a member of the French Resistance, she saved the lives of more than one hundred airmen and aided more than twenty thousand people. Eventually she was captured, interrogated, and tortured. She was lined up to be shot by a firing squad, too, when the U.S. Army arrived. “It was a terrible time,” she said, “but looking back I am so proud of what I did … It was a kind of fear that was not really fear. We had accepted we would die … I rarely thought of my personal safety. I just acted and did what I believed was the right thing.” 4
Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist and Union spy during the American Civil War. She said, “I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to—liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.” She escaped slavery and went on to make more than thirteen missions to rescue more than seventy slaves using the network of activists known as the Underground Railroad. She was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, the Combahee Ferry Raid, in which she liberated some seven hundred slaves in South Carolina.5
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian writer and a harsh and courageous critic of communist ideology. He wrote several books that exposed to the world the Soviet Union’s forced labor camp system, which was responsible for the death of millions of people. He survived several Soviet gulags and, for the rest of his long life, remained committed to telling the world of Soviet atrocities. He wrote, “A genius doesn’t adjust his treatment of a theme to a tyrant’s taste.” Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 and subsequently was exiled from the Soviet Union.6
Georgia O’Keeffe, an American artist who painted unusually beautiful art of the American Southwest, said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. I found myself saying to myself … I can’t live where I want to … I can’t go where I want to … I can’t do what I want to. I can’t even say what I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to … that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself.” 7
Maya Angelou was a poet, educator, and novelist who wrote more than thirty books by age eighty-five. She wrote of her early life and the brutal reality of racial discrimination in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. By the time she was seventeen, she was a single mother working at times as a waitress and cook. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. She said, “There is no greater agony than having an untold story inside of you.” 8
Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutch Post-Impressionist painter who influenced much of twentieth-century art, was a prolific painter in his brief life and considered the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt. Van Gogh was known as a tormented artist suffering from anxiety and mental illness—he died at age thirty-seven of a self-inflicted gunshot wound—but in life he found release and freedom in his art. He wrote, “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” 9
What is the difference between being true to yourself and fooling yourself?
Resilient people have learned to make decisions and take actions that are deliberate and consistent with their values and beliefs. Others may not agree with these choices and may attempt to convince them another way is better. Nevertheless, resilient people know deep inside that the choices they make are the right ones for them. They hold their ground. They stop trying to live in ways that others find acceptable.
The quick guide below will help you see if you’re living a life consistent with your basic values and beliefs.
Three reasons why it is difficult to pursue an authentic life
At some time in your life, have you made any false starts, taken wrong directions, or veered off on a detour? Or maybe you are still trying to find direction. Living authentically requires soul searching and self-honesty. Nevertheless, once you’re able to navigate by your own true north, much of your life, and the decisions you make, will begin to make sense and fall naturally into place. At first, though, you may find yourself holding back. Here are three common reasons for resisting change.
One: Fear of what you will lose
Maybe you’re so afraid of losing what you have that you’re unable to let go and be yourself. Maybe you’ll need to leave a job, change your lifestyle, downsize to a different house, or leave a relationship. You might need to relocate. Perhaps you have grown used to having the prestige and power of an important position, or you may be in the middle of a successful career that you only thought you wanted. You may have to give up money and security, or go back to school. Do you ever feel this way about your life? Many people have this fear.
In certain parts of the world, monkeys are a pest and, from time to time, need to be relocated. In order to do so, they first must be trapped. To do this, a jar is fastened securely to a tree and an orange is placed in it. Or sometimes, as the ancient parable is told, a coconut is hollowed out and filled with something sweet. In either case the opening created is just big enough for a hand to enter but not for a closed fist to exit. The monkey will place his hand in the jar and try to grab the orange. If he succeeds, he can’t remove his hand with the orange in it. Unless he lets go, he’ll be trapped. Generally, his greed overcomes his desire for freedom and he will remain stuck and so easy to catch and transport.10
Two: Pressure to conform and please others
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
If you’re like many of us, you probably base many of your decisions on what others want you to do, think you should do, and convince you to do. But living someone else’s dream for you doesn’t work. Marilyn Monroe, who everyone considered an extraordinary success at the peak of her career, once said, “I’m a failure as a woman. My men expect so much of me because of the image they’ve made of me—and that I’ve made of myself—as a sex symbol. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy is the same as any other woman’s and I can’t live up to it.”
The world will mold and shape you if you let it. Advertising, TV, and the Internet dictate to us how we should live, what clothes to wear, how to talk, what to drive, and what size house to buy. The list is long. Your parents may have had expectations for you that still are part of the life decisions you make as an adult. Most of us tend to comply with what’s expected of us because society rewards conformity. If you behave a certain way and do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be promoted and accepted. If you don’t, you might be overlooked and rejected. Unfortunately, we can lose our authentic selves along the way and sometimes it’s difficult to find our way back.
Anne Lamott is a well-known novelist and nonfiction writer, political activist, public speaker, and writing teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. She asks, “How do we gently stop being who we aren’t? How do we relieve ourselves of the false fronts of people-pleasing and affectation, the obsessive need for power and security, the backpack of old pain, and the psychic Spanx (women’s slimming undergarments) that keeps us smaller and contained?”
Three: The inconvenience of change
Being who you are is a challenge. Often it takes work and many of us just don’t want to put in the effort. There are so many reasons to put it off. John W. Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, resigned from the post because he couldn’t support the war in Vietnam. He said, “Human beings have always employed an enormous variety of clever devices for running away from themselves.”
He hit the nail on the head. We can all find so many reasons to ignore the inner voice that keeps nagging us to do something about our deep unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. This voice will never go away, however. You may successfully ignore it, but it will be insistent. Sometimes the voice will be a mere whisper, but you will hear it. Sadly, many people ignore this call until it really is too late. Some even go to their grave without ever truly living.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor in pre-World War II Germany, was opposed to the Nazi regime in power. A pacifist, he worried he’d be conscripted to fight for Germany and forced to swear allegiance to Hitler. So he moved to the United States and endeavored to fight Nazism from outside Germany. But he saw quickly that he’d made a mistake and returned to Germany. “If you board the wrong train,” he said, “it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” The consequences of his decision led to his arrest, imprisonment, and execution.11
At times we’re so busy that we don’t take the time to pay attention. Or we don’t have the energy to devote to making even small changes that bring us closer to the truth of who we are. Ironically, we end up wasting time and nervous energy in denying our true needs with false starts, detours, and wrong directions. We fill our life with distractions and imitate what we think is a meaningful life, except that we feel empty. At the end of the day, we’re still unfulfilled and ask, “What if this is as good as it gets?” So we run faster and faster, only to discover we’ve wasted years living a life that is a poor fit. But all is not lost. Starting now, each of us can begin to live an authentic life.
It is time to pursue an authentic life
“Any life, no matter how long and complex it may be, is made up of a single moment—the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is.”
—Jorge Luis Borges
When do you begin living an authentic life? When you finally figure out that you must do something differently. The moment could come as a flash of insight. Sometimes circumstances seem to leave you no choice. Maybe you have to choose between your job demands and caring for a friend or family member who is ill. Coming to grips with such a decision brings your values and beliefs into sharp focus.
Sometimes, after years of unhappiness, feelings of emptiness, and lack of fulfillment, you finally may realize you can’t ignore your pain any longer. You may deny your feelings, get dragged down with inertia, or procrastinate making any changes, but finally the time arrives when you must look deep inside and discover why you’re miserable. Maybe you already know what you need to do but you’ve been avoiding the changes you’d have to make. Let’s say you want to be a teacher, a clergyman, an engineer. Or you want to own a bicycle shop, move to Alaska, or spend more time with your children. When do you break the news to others? Are you prepared for the push back from others as well as yourself?
Seven approaches toward a more authentic life
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Many of you may be feeling discouraged about your life, and some may even feel desperate. Maybe you don’t have the courage, willingness, and know-how to swim against the tide. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Do you ever feel this way? Do you wonder if you’re being swept along with the tide?
If the answer is yes, you need to do some serious soul-searching and get to know yourself better. Do you know your beliefs? Are you clear about your personal values? They will provide you with compelling direction. Everyone makes choices in life—to take one job or another, to finish a college degree or not, to stay with or leave a spouse, to have children. By the end of your life you’ll have made many decisions, big and small. In his poem “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost describes coming to a fork in the road and having to choose one path:
… I shall be telling this with a sigh
The approaches listed below will effectively help you come home to yourself. Reflection and insights don’t usually happen overnight. They take time and require you to listen to yourself. Self-examination takes time and practice and requires you to pay attention to yourself and not let distractions divert you. You will need a notebook or journal because it’s a good idea to write down your thoughts daily. If you believe you may not be living an authentic life, it may be because you are not conscious of your life’s meaning and purpose. Below are some suggestions for helping you discover thoughts, dreams, hopes, and yearnings, and bringing them to the surface of your mind. They can help you start leading a life that’s more authentic today. You don’t have all the time in the world.
One: Do some soul-searching
“Sometimes the best way to figure out who you are is to get to that place where you don’t have to be anything else.”
This is a good time to turn away from the influence of others for a while. The world is noisy and insistent and it’s difficult to concentrate on anything else when it demands your attention. Continuous clamor from the outside can drive out introspection. So shut off the news and television. Check your email as needed but stop endlessly going from one Internet story to the next.
This discipline will help you quiet your mind in preparation for discovering what’s critically important—your values and beliefs. You need to set aside time every day to quiet your mind. Start with ten minutes at a time and then work up to twenty minutes. You might start by asking yourself: What longings and dreams do I have? What seems to be missing in my life?
Some of you may resist writing in a daily journal for several reasons. You don’t have time, or anything to say. Maybe you worry that someone might read it. But before you decide it’s a waste of time, consider some of the benefits. By writing down your frustrations, fears, and anxieties, you will begin the process of having a conversation with yourself that will calm you and begin to allay the anxiety-producing demands in your head. You can write them down and get them in front of you where you can actually see them. When all of those concerns, some of them vague and undeveloped, crowd into your head, there is little room for anything else. Get them out of there. Deal with them.
Also, many people like to write down their problems, dilemmas, or confusion and then walk away from them. When they return later and read what they wrote, they realize they’ve already worked out a solution. Why not give a journal a chance?
Two: Know what you really love
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to keep your soul alive.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Essential to soul searching is discovering and understanding what exactly is speaking to your soul. Here’s a fun exercise: Peruse some favorite magazines. When a picture catches your attention, cut it out and put it aside. Go to a bookstore and write down the titles to which you’re drawn. When you’re going from story to story on the Internet, which ones grab your attention? This is one way of getting closer and closer to where your genuine interests lie and may provide a path to who you are—the person you may not be acknowledging.
You might even collect these images and titles and put them in a scrapbook. It won’t take long before a story all about you begins to emerge. You’ll likely discover long dormant desires and interests in your life that, with a little gentle encouragement, will help you reshape your life into what it’s meant to be.
Learn to pay attention. As poet Anne Sexton writes, “Put your ear down next to your soul and listen hard.” In the words of Saint Benedict, “Listen with the ear of the heart.”
Three: Spend some time with people you trust and who may have insight into your life
“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
Often it helps to spend time with a friend, family member, group, or counselor. Choose someone you trust who will truly listen and set aside their judgment of what they think you should do. Let them ask you questions, then answer them as honestly as you can. Look for contradictions between how you’re acting in your life, how you feel, and what you say is important to you.
What do contradictions look like? If you’re pursuing a career that requires traveling or long hours at the office, and yet you claim your family is of great importance to you, there’s a contradiction between what you say is important and how you behave.
Sometimes we’re blind to the contradictions we reveal to others. For instance, you may love helping out at a day care center, singing in the choir, doing the bookkeeping for free for a local nonprofit, and hate your day job. A friend, coworker, or a family member may be the first to notice that you live for your hobbies and volunteer activities and that there’s a mismatch between where you seem to come alive and where you are half-dead with boredom, stress, and fatigue.
Four: Be perfectly clear and relentlessly honest with yourself
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any man.”
In your journal, write how you want to live and what you want to do with the precious one life you have. Over time your priorities may change but you will be surprised at how consistent some of them will be. How do you think yours have changed in the past five to ten years?
What events in your life have changed how you view your priorities? For instance, many people who have gone through a traumatic event, such as an accident or life-threatening illness, will say that what’s important in life finally became clear to them. Many are even thankful for a near-death experience because of how it sharpened and defined the most precious boundaries of their lives. Pay attention to your innermost thoughts. Be your own best friend as you listen. Be completely honest with yourself. No one else is going to read what you write. Put your journal in a safe and secure place.
Ann Romney, wife of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was interviewed about her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and her bout with breast cancer several years later. “You learn how to dig really deep,” she said. “You say, I’m going to get through this. I think it has changed my heart. It has softened my heart. It has made me very concerned about others who are going through challenges and know that we’ll all have a dark hour in our life. There are people who are suffering right now. They may be losing a parent, a child, or a spouse. Or they are being diagnosed with cancer … I am grateful that my heart has been opened up and softened … suddenly I couldn’t even take care of myself. It’s like a rug being pulled out from under you. And what are you left with? You really have to evaluate, Who am I? Who am I, really?” 12
Five: Start whittling your life to its very essence
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Michelangelo also said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” That’s what you must do: Let go of parts of your life that don’t feel essential to you. Carve them away. Start slowly. You can change your mind. But stop being who you are not. Stop pouring out energy into something that is not very important to you. Say “no” when you find yourself going in the wrong direction.
Another exercise that can be revealing is to make note of pictures that are unlike you. For instance, when you see people sitting in an airplane, or someone scuba diving, or giving a speech, teaching a class of students, repairing a car, or performing surgery, you can say, “I know I am not drawn to that life. That is not an authentic reflection of my life.”
These are expectations and images that you can whittle from yourself and say, “These are not me.” As with all soul searching exercises, you will need to answer honestly for you and not who you think you should be or what you wish you could be. A picture of a surgeon may lead you to thoughts of, “She makes lots of money. She is respected and smart. I would like that for myself.” But at the end of the day, do you deep inside want to be a surgeon or are you swayed by what you imagine the surgeon has? Be yourself. Put your name in this short statement and post it on your door so you see it all the time as you come and go: “Be__________.”
Six: Know your values
“I think the world would be a lot better off if more people were to define themselves in terms of their own standards and values and not what other people said or thought about them.”
Your values are the rules you live by, the concepts you feel are important for your own success. Did you know that the vast majority of people aren’t consciously aware of their values? It’s only after you give them some thought and understand which rules you find important that you start to truly play the game of life. Carl Jung, one of the fathers of psychotherapy, once said, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
Can you list five of your personal values? If you can, then you’re way ahead of most people. Even if you know some of your values, try a simple exercise to clarify them further.
Some sample values or success factors:
Seven: Face your fear of being yourself
“One does not discover new lands without consenting to losing sight of the shore for a very long time.”
The journey to find your authentic self can be very frightening and it’s tempting to stay on shore, which you can do. Many of you try to keep one foot on shore, which, of course, you can’t do. You have to finally make a choice.
Neil Simon, the American playwright, said:
Don’t listen to those who say, ‘It’s not done that way.’ Maybe it’s not, but maybe you will. Don’t listen to those who say, ‘You’re taking too big a chance.’ Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, and it would surely be rubbed out by today. Most importantly, don’t listen when the little voice of fear inside of you rears its ugly head and says, ‘They’re all smarter than you out there. They’re more talented, they’re taller, blonder, prettier, luckier and have connections …’ I firmly believe that if you follow a path that interests you, not to the exclusion of love, sensitivity, and cooperation with others, but with the strength of conviction that you can move others by your own efforts, and do not make success or failure the criterion by which you live, the chances are you’ll be a person worthy of your own respect.
What exactly do you think will happen if you are true to yourself? Think about what or who is talking when you feel afraid to act on your own. Is it the voice of TV and Hollywood, a voice that has convinced you that you have to live a certain way? Is it someone close to you who has decided how you should live and who you must become? Is it a parental voice or chorus? Is it the voice of your children? Your supervisor? Is your fear justified? What is the worst that can happen? Is it really going to happen if you’re true to yourself? Now, focus on one small step you might take toward being yourself. Be bold and take that step, and see if your fear is justified or if you’ve faced it down and are ready to take the next step.
Five key points about living an authentic life
Resilient people have learned to navigate their lives by their true north and can say with certainty, “This is who I am and this is where I’m heading.” They are comfortable in their own skin and recognize, accept, and celebrate their individuality. This self-knowledge removes uncertainty, which is a good thing because it allows us to get on with our lives: there is less second-guessing and fewer detours and wrong directions.
Living an authentic life opens up our daring and creative sides and finally releases us to pursue and live our dreams. It takes work. You have to do some soul searching to get acquainted with yourself, but when you find yourself, you find your answers. You can do it, and you will never regret taking the time to find your true north.
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