Authenticity and Ecology
Updated: Apr 26
I generally take what you could call an ecological approach to problem solving. I don’t believe in forcing a solution onto a problem except when it’s absolutely necessary to do so (as it sometimes is). Instead I would rather harness the natural forces in the situation to take care of the problem. And I would take a hard look at what I or other people are doing that might be creating the problem in the first place.
This is the way I look at achieving authenticity. The path to your real self consists largely of getting out of your own way and then following your natural desire for awareness. There's a lot to unpack in these two steps, but the solution still comes from within.
The alternative to the natural is the force-fit. I think that that way of solving problems is emblematic of the worst of Western thinking. Think of the way in which urban renewal destroyed healthy neighborhoods. The force-fit can be very powerful, but sometimes it makes problems worse. For example, children who don’t want to go to school are routinely made to, sometimes kicking and screaming. That’s the force-fit. But at the English school Summerhill, no child is forced to do anything (beyond obeying certain elementary safety rules). Many stay away from classes at first, sometimes for months. But eventually their natural desire for learning and the atmosphere of trust that has been built up motivates them to go.
Adult examples abound: heart surgery is the force-fit. Healthy eating and exercise are the ecological solution But you need to find a way to make healthy food and exercise pleasant. Ascetic diets and running on a treadmill like a caged hamster would be force-fits. You might need something like a force-fit to get one out of a bad rut and into a good one, but ultimately one should find a "rut" where what is good for you corresponds with what makes you happy so that the good habit becomes "natural." Understanding what constitutes healthy food and exercise is the best of Western thinking.
I know some of my libertarian readers are going to bristle at any positive mention of ecology because they associate the term with the anti-freedom aspects of environmentalism, but if you look at the conceptualization, you will see that is valid and useful even to libertarian notions. For example, the self-correcting free market is a kind of ecological system, and government intervention is the force-fit that is only occasionally necessary. This pattern holds in many other areas of life as well.
When it comes to achieving authenticity, the force-fit would be to “express your feelings” and to try to act earnestly. The ecological approach is to stop acting like anything, go into yourself and shrug off the hype and the feelings of duty until you are centered. Then just feel your feelings and be yourself. Of course there's more to it than that!
When I say "just be yourself," I don't mean "act impulsively." The realized human self is focused, self-aware and plan-making. That is our deepest nature. What I mean by being yourself is giving up the false awareness of living in a fantasy world, very much including the fantasy that self-respect essentially requires impressing other people or God or even yourself. The self that can do this without intellectualizing can now "center." This allows you to clear a space for yourself so that you may become the "I" in life's hurricane. In this way you can learn to be objective and subjective at the same time so that you can let your feelings permeate you without being controlled by them.
Now you are very close to authenticity and you are ready to align your plans with your deepest values, both with those values that come from your nature as a human being, such as a need for meaning, and with those values that come from your particular talents and history, such as becoming a carpenter or a physician or a parent (or all three). This process involves effortful thought, but if you do it from the inside, it is not a force-fit. Work is not in and of itself a force-fit. And the reward for your effort is a wonderfully paradoxical self: defined yet unbound. The paradox is that your real freedom is your freedom to find your way to your self.
There is still more to this process, of course. If you are like most people, you will need to identify some bad fantasies, concepts, and habits in one's life, check them against reality, and perhaps find ways to discard them. However, doing this in a centered state is a whole lot easier and natural than in a hyped-up state, or a dull-gray duty-ridden state, or in whatever state you might conjure to get away from your real, free self. This identification and discarding of bad concepts and habits once again involves an effort, but it need not be a force-fit if you regard it as a journey of discovery rather than an occasion to castigate yourself for any previous ignorance or error.
Just to mention my favorite example of an error, some people believe they need to be cool, i.e. ironic, superior, ahead of the curve. This belief is based on the conviction that life is meaningless unless one can attune oneself to some sort of cosmic wavelength that other people cannot hear. But if one realizes that there is no cosmic wavelength, no zeitgeist in any reified sense, then one is thrown back on oneself, and then, hopefully, one will begin to confront the fact that trying to be superior to others does not remedy the feeling that one is inferior to others. Ideally, one will stop making comparisons at all and begin to find the little things that give life authentic meaning, until the point is reached where one can find/build a big thing that does. At the highest level, finding values and building values are two sides of the same coin because they are twin aspects of self-realization, a very ecological process indeed. This is what I mean when I say "Become who you are."
Now, I don’t mean to imply that the Good Life can be achieved by mere commonsense and feeling your way through to your goals. Feelings, emotions and impressions by themselves cannot tell us what is true, although they are indispensable aids to the process of discovery. Other components are also necessary for the undertaking. Philosophy and abstractions generally are of fundamental importance to the task, although many people resist abstractions and want to live life on the "everyday" level. Nonetheless, there's no escaping the need for philosophy.
For example, consider Ayn Rand's central concept of the Primacy of Existence, which is the philosophical principle that reality is independent of the mind. A lot of inauthenticity comes from ignorant or willful defiance of this principle, in short, trying to shape the world by pure wish. An instance might be someone wishing they would do well on an exam when they haven't prepared for it. The force-fit would be desperately cramming on the morning of the test and crossing their fingers. The ecological, reality-based solution would be to absorb the material as you encounter it.
Not accepting that reality is independent of one's wishes could also lead me to try to change myself by pure wish. Having free will does not mean that I can will just anything I want about myself. I have a nature and am free only within its bounds. I cannot, for example, be sadistic to my employees and a loving family man at the same time, no matter how much I try to convince myself of the contrary. The internal dynamics of care and control render it impossible. This sort of contradiction chokes authenticity off at the source.
However, as much as good philosophical principles such as the Primacy of Existence can in many ways help you discard error and find truth and thereby help you to achieve authenticity, such principles must be lived from the inside, as it were, and not be forced onto your life. Abstractions are like fire, beautiful and useful when handled properly; dangerous, when not. Suppose you think of or hear about a principle that sounds logical. Try to force it onto your life and you will become dogmatic and repressed. Instead, take the ecological route. Check the principle against your lived experience and gently question the principle. Then check your lived experience against the principle and gently question your interpretation of your experience. You might have to modify the principle or reinterpret your experience. Practice curiosity and self-compassion. Continue to oscillate until the principle makes logical sense and experiential sense. Don't give one or the other priority unless you absolutely have to. Engage in a dialogue for one, moving from vantage point to vantage point. This is what it means to live a principle from the inside.
I think the reader can discern my high esteem for philosophy. But I hope it is also clear that I believe philosophy and its abstractions serve life, not the other way around. Just as there are people who think philosophy consists of nothing but rationalizations unrelated to "real life" and who honor their raw experience too much, so also are there people who force-fit their undigested philosophical principles onto their lives. I am arguing for a golden mean between these two extremes. Philosophy helps our natural, undeveloped, "proto-rational" inclinations find their proper ends and forms, but those natural inclinations and our excitement for living do not descend from philosophy—they motivate it, even though we cannot fully realize ourselves without a philosophy that is at least halfway good, although that philosophy might be only implicit. This way of looking at things leads to reasoned passion, as opposed to passionless reason and reasonless passion, both being erroneous extremes that are caused by a misunderstanding of reason and man's nature.
A good example of this situation is the transformation of lust into romantic love. At puberty an adolescent might feel a desperate urge to start having sex, but good, though probably largely implicit principles will hopefully lead him or her to develop respect for his or her sexual self and his or her potential partner's so that sex is integrated into mutual idealization and attains its highest form. Passionless "reason" here might mean celibacy, usually underwritten by ideas about sex being "dirty," while reasonless "passion" would probably mean promiscuity. I use the scare-quotes here because neither reason nor passion is authentic without the other. Romantic love is the golden mean.
I hope the reader can see that even though I emphasize reason and philosophy so much, I have no desire to discount feelings. I do speak of inclinations and passions after all. We would not be human without our emotions. Feelings, by which I mean emotions, impressions, intuitions, the felt sense, hunches, the gut feeling, and so forth, are the interface between unconscious and conscious cognition. We are evaluative and "sensing" beings as much as we are intellectual beings.
Nor do we have to be "perfect" to be authentic. We may need to do special work in our emotional lives, for example, in dealing with trauma, but my point is that we can still become authentic even though we have work to do as long as we are willing to think philosophically, by which I mean, not studying the history of philosophy, but thinking for ourselves about first principles.
As you can hopefully see from a few examples, philosophy is not merely an intellectual exercise. But the philosophical life must be approached ecologically, exactly as authenticity must be. Mature philosophizing requires a certain kind of reason: Stay focused, centered, and present. Feel your feelings and let them permeate you. Listen to your gut but don't give it the last word. Breathe calmly. Use your head. Use common sense and logic. Use curiosity and empathy. Use your whole self, for it is the entire, present person that knows—and lives—the whole, not just a part, not even the part inside your skull. This method, this manner of existence, goes beyond verbal logic alone—as essential as that is—to what I call "robust rationality."
Robust rationality is good for all problem solving, but, I should add that you can still be robustly rational, when you are in a less self-aware "flow" state, or even when you are relaxed and not actively engaged in problem solving at all. After you train yourself in the practice, it does not have to be an active process. Robust rationality has a "resting potential" that is experienced as being centered in an open and peaceful way.
We have finally come to the crux of matter: Robust rationality is not just a tool for solving problems, not even a tool for finding authenticity. Its value is not merely instrumental. The self-conscious practice of robust rationality in the particular context of one's life is authenticity. It is our realized mental life and as such is an end in itself. This is the ultimate ecology of human consciousness.
So, engage, but stay relaxed, and remember that there is no "right answer" until you find it for yourself. Approach the process with wonder, which, as Plato and Aristotle agree, is the beginning of philosophy. Keep in mind that while abstractions are nothing more than ways of organizing specifics, specifics cannot be understood without abstractions. Be true to both. Real truth, the truth worth knowing and living by, is not a force-fit, but is and feels natural. Live life from the inside. Avoid the force-fit except when it is absolutely necessary. And love life and the you who you are becoming.
If you enjoyed this essay you might like my book of essays about authenticity, Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life