A Good Life in a World of Distraction and Anxiety: A conversation in eight parts


Part I: Of Stuff and Persons                         Part II: A Free Prisoner
Part III: A Life without Distractions            Part V: On Crisis and Friendship
Part VI: A Good Person or a Good Life?     Part VII: The Meaningness of Meaningness?
Part VIII: A Leap of Faith

Part IV: On being Authentic

The throbbing pain in a toe makes one walk through life in a waddle. Those with privilege walk without a limp and without pain. Or do they? Are they not reflecting themselves in the eyes of others just as much as those who limp? Are they not as much thingified by the prejudice they emit and receive?

To be human is to be wounded.

Notme rolled up a large helping of spaghetti on her fork and filled her mouth with it, chewing it thoughtfully. Before quite swallowing she said:
Notme: “Being authentic is one thing, but no, that is not what we want. Authentic you can be without engaging in others. You see, there is sincerity, authenticity, and Sincere Engagements and these three are very different modes of moral conduct.”
She continued, while still chewing:
Notme: “We are social creatures. We are who we are due to different social contexts, when growing up, when going to work or college, in the sports team or friends circle. We call those authentic who keep a moral consistency over different social contexts. This is not a given. People say things in some contexts which would be unutterable in other contexts. I know people who use a horrible language with some of their friends in one context…”
Me: “Like locker room talk?”
Notme: “If you will. And these people would object severely to the same language, say with their partners or workplace. This is not contradictory to these people, since the social contexts determine who we are. They are, in a way, completely sincere in all these contexts. To be sincere is to be so in a fleeting moment. I have made many promises in my life which I completely meant in the moment, but later, when something changed, I no longer intended to fulfill the promise. Sincerity is ugly, because it lacks consistency and therefore turns earnestness into lies. And when social contexts are mixed up there is a crisis. This is one type of scandal that happens to politicians, when their language in one social context is recorded and played in another context. Or the cheating partner being caught. On the other hand, those we call authentic do not alter their moral behaviour according to the social context. They have a moral backbone. They know who they are, and they are confident enough to stay who they are, no matter what social pressure they may experience in any situation.”
Me: “Authentic people are great, those are the kind of people I like and admire!”
Notme: “Alas, that seems to be the general attitude. It is not easy, especially for a public figure, to transform our morals, we will be seen as suspect and untrustworthy. We prefer not to be surprised by people. In fact, those who are merely sincere get less punished in the public eye than those who Sincerely Engage, and that is natural in a culture dominated by insecure culture savvy adults. For to be authentic is to be confident in one’s culture-savviness. Those who sincerely engage, on the other hand, are not changing themselves depending on which social context they happen to be in at the moment. Neither do they hold on to a social or moral code no matter the context. No, they are open to let different social contexts change them, and in turn influence the social context so that it too may transform. It would appear, but I may be wrong, that each sincerely engaging person was at some point authentic first. Those who are merely sincere are still hopeless.”
She took another big bite of pasta and chewed it with delight.
Me: “How d’ya tell the difference between being sincere, and sincerely engaging? Don’t both indicate that you are inconsistent? You may be sincerely engaging in one social context and behave completely contradictory to some sincere engagement in another social context?”
Notme: “No, not at all! You see, the “authentic me” is itself a prejudice and therefore a thing–not a person. The person who sincerely engages with themselves, on the other hand will not become a fixed authentic self but an ever transforming and reflecting self in flux. This is how we become persons. Of course, this also means risking discomfort and ridicule but the alternative is an empty life as things, based on romantic notions imposed on us by other people. The merely sincere person does not reflect upon herself and the social, political and cultural context she is in, she merely goes with the flow and behaves according to the law of least resistance. To be authentic means to act with resistance to the social context when so needed for one’s own consistency, to have a moral backbone. To sincerely engage means to transform and reshape that backbone itself, to let oneself be affected by life.”
She slurped up some icy slush of water.
Notme: “That is the thing with the human condition: we are cultured. We all have to become culture savvy adults at some point in our development in order to mature into personhood. First we have to become something, then we can start to transform. We need to have a world view in order to change it, we need to have a self-view in order to transform it, and we have to have categories and prejudice about other people in order to challenge them. We need to follow our dreams in order to realise that they are romantic unfulfilling fluff. And we are always going to be part of a cultural and historical context, whether we want to or not. Remember: we cannot even perceive the world without prejudice. And there are no romantic goals in the end. The only goal is the transformations themselves. “
Me: “Aha! That’s a contradiction! That sounds an awful lot as a romantic goal in itself: to not have romantic goals and be ‘Sincerely Engaging’, or ‘Forever Transforming’ or whatnot?”
Notme: “Not at all! Meaningness is a method, not a state!”
Me: “But how do you tell the difference? How do you know you are not simply following a romantic notion of self-transformation rather than engaging sincerely?”
Notme shrugged.
Notme: “We are changing all the time anyway. Meaningness means to do it in a reflected fashion, and be in control over one’s transformation.”
I chewed up the remainder of the baguette and washed it down with coffee.
Me: “So you need to reflect and transform, all the time? I must say, that sounds exhausting.”
Notme: “No, what I am saying is that we need to Sincerely Engage all the time. But rest is also important, because, as you say, transformations can be exhausting, so we need to have energy and time for them. It would be insincere not to also find rest. And to build good habits of sincere engagements means that we can rest in the habitual.”
Me: “To find ourselves!”
Notme: “No! Not at all! That is adolescent nonsense! Remember, adolesence is a new phenomenon, historically. It contains the promise that we can choose who we are. But flourishing comes from transcending one’s object and becoming a human. In order to do that we need to become something first, find our identity in society. It is part of the animal condition and without it we can’t embrace our human condition. Adolescence, however, is the opposite, it is to never settle on anything in the first place, and it is ever expanding throughout modernity. We are trying to figure out who we are and by doing that we are perpetually distracted from flourishing as human beings. Instead of a culture which tells us that it is up to us who we are (not to mention in a ridiculus individualistic sense), we need a culture which enables human floruishing. Enables animals to become humans, things to flourish into persons, objects to become subjects, together. This modern search for oneself is more of a distraction from flourishing as human beings in a reflected manner. From sincerely engagement.”
Me: “A bit like what Aristotle said. When you think about how to live the good life, that’s the good life, the thinking itself.”
Notme: “Yes, possibly. So that we may treat people as persons.”
The air-conditioning of the mall had made my nose runny and I found myself in need of some tissue. I looked around for the waiter, and she immediately noticed, attentive as she was, and readily understood my signalling for another napkin which was promptly brought with a friendly smile. How adept!
Notme: “Are you flirting with the waiter?”
Me: “No!”
I did not say it, but it was the truth: I was not flirting with the waiter. I did however have a compulsion to please her, as if it was important that I was a good customer, someone she could hold up as a rolemodel of how customers should be, someone to look back at after a hard day’s work dealing with complaints and rudeness, me being the great shining example, the one instance in her daily work which made it all worthwhile. I quickly changed the topic.
Me: “So how does one become sincerely engaging instead of authentic?”
Notme: “The best way to do it is through friendship! The less preferred but quite common path is to go through an existential crisis. Or possibly both.”

Next part: On Friendship and Crisis

 TT, Thinking of Things, 2017