To Thine Own Self Be True – Authenticity vs Your Best Self


Many years ago, when I was a newly-called volunteer missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Thomas S. Monson, who at the time was the 2nd counselor in the First Presidency of the church, came to speak to us in the Missionary Training Center in Provo Utah.

In his sermon, he told us that he was going to share with us the key to being a good missionary. According to the notes in my missionary journal, he said that the key was to “be yourself– but be your best self.” He emphasized that each of us was an individual, a child of God, and that God had endowed us individually with certain characteristics and attributes. “Be your best self every day.”

The advice to “be yourself– but be your best self” has stuck with me ever since and I have thought of it often.

In subsequent years, our society has developed a kind of obsession with what it labels “Authenticity.” The idea had already gained considerable mind-space in previous decades, but it seems that lately this idea of being “true to your authentic self” has become a kind of all-encompassing prime directive in our society.

Living authentically seems to be tied to a notion that you shouldn’t hide who you “really are” in order to conform to external norms or expectations. It seems tied closely to the notion that you shouldn’t pretend to be something that you are not. And it also seems intertwined with a fear of appearing hypocritical.

But somehow in the process of trying to not be hypocritical we have transformed authenticity into a justification for indulging our base appetites and weaknesses. Many seem to think that it is better to embrace our vices openly and unabashedly than to espouse an ideal and then unavoidably fall short.

And the parts of our selves that we are encouraged to embrace are suspiciously selective and inconsistent. We are supposed to be authentic to anything related to sexual appetites, but, despite growing scientific evidence that our brains are hard-wired for religious belief, nobody is encouraged to indulge their natural religious inclinations in the name of being true to their “authentic self.”

Real hypocrisy is about putting on a show; it is feigned, insincere espousal of belief or an ideal; it is dishonest. Falling short of a sincerely believed ideal, despite honest effort, is simply not the same thing.

Commentary writer Damon Linker recently made some very astute observations about this modern concept of hypocrisy:

To insist that we only affirm standards that we can achieve with perfect consistency is, in effect, to drastically lower those standards from something that we strive for (while often failing) to something within much easier reach — which probably won’t be much different from what we would do in the absence of any standard at all. It’s a license for us to go easy on ourselves: to aim low and succeed.

The idea of being “authentic” is also closely tied to the strange modern notion that because “God doesn’t make mistakes” any tendency or inclination with which you were born is a manifestation of His will and therefore good.

While it is true that God does not make mistakes, this idea ignores entirely the doctrine of the Fall of Man through his own agency and the resulting fallen world. While ultimately the fallen world is part of God’s plan, the consequence of the fall is that we may be born with defects and imperfections. That we are born with defects and imperfections is part of God’s plan, but it does not follow therefore that He doesn’t intend for us to try to overcome our defects– and to turn to Him for help in doing it.

I know for a fact that my “self” is a combination of base and depraved desires as well as good and noble. Those base desires are just as much a true part of me as the good ones are. So parts of my true self are depraved. I believe that everyone knows this is true about themselves. And when we give expression to the evil within ourselves it cannot lead to long term happiness even if it is a relief of sorts in the short run.

I know that indulging my baser self leads to unhappiness because I have done so at times and know from experience. But the times that I have aspired to better than what I am have lead to personal growth and improvement– and peace, even in struggle.

Do I fall short? Boy, do I! All the time. Embarrassingly so. And sometimes I feel like giving up. There would certainly be a sense of relief in simply giving up the fight with my self.

On September 15th, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Presidency of the Seventy of the church gave a devotional to the students of Brigham Young University on the topic of religious freedom and fairness for all. During his sermon, Elder Rasband made the following aside:

Please do not misunderstand me here. When I speak of us being authentic, the Lord does not give us a free pass to live any way we choose without consequences. We are still accountable to Him for our choices. […] The commandment to seek after perfection implies that we start where we are and seek the Lord’s help to lift us to where He wants us to go. Being true to our authentic self requires continual effort to increase our light, knowledge, and understanding.

Elder Rasband’s conceptualization of “being true to our authentic self” stands in stark contrast to that of society. The self is not simply static. It is also variable and can change based on what we choose. Not only can the self change, it must change– being authentic requires continual effort to change for the better.

Many people like to quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet “to thine own self be true.” But if they actually read the quote in context they might realize that the speaker, Polonius, isn’t really proposing a strategy for a happy life. He is suggesting to his son a kind of selfishness in putting his own interests ahead of all else. And in the end nearly everyone ends up dead.

Far superior to the misappropriation of the quote from Hamlet is this wonderful passage from Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes :

Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he’s covering up. He’s had his fun and he’s guilty. And all men do love sin, Will, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit appetites. Hear a man too loudly praising others and look to wonder if he didn’t just get up from the sty. On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that’s your good man with a capital G, Will. For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two. I’ve known a few. You work twice as hard to be a farmer as to be his hog.

Despite his great insight, what Bradbury misses is that it is Christ who makes it possible to strain at being good without breaking in two. That is the “Good News”of the Gospel: That through the grace of Jesus and his suffering on our behalf, we can strain at being good, and fail, and keep trying.

So, to reiterate President Monson’s advice: embrace your individuality; your quirks, your personality, your unique combination of self. You are a child of God and he created you with certain characteristics. But being a child of God also means that you must strive to become what you are capable of becoming– you must be authentic to the divinity within you.

Don’t embrace the self-indulgent authenticity of modern society.

Be your self– but be your best self.

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