Escaping Authenticity: The Path From Individual Originality To Universal Integrity
Our contemporary society, with its spotlight on individualism, has heightened the pursuit of authenticity into a defining quest. This endeavor, fueled by a craving for originality and uniqueness, is deeply entrenched in our human experience.
From personal self-help books to professional development courses, the concept of the 'authentic self' is venerated as 'a virtue', considered key to self-fulfillment and prosperity. Society nudges us towards discovering and maintaining this 'authentic self', often envisioned as our most unique, untouched core. This elusive treasure is considered the gateway to personal satisfaction and professional success. However, this pursuit of the 'authentic self' creates an intriguing paradox.
Upon introspection, we're faced with a clear realization: every individual, in their own peculiar manner, is unique. Each one of us embodies a vast array of experiences, thoughts, emotions, and identities that sets us apart. Delving into the depths of our individuality, we seek the source of our uniqueness to find out how we’re special. It's a spiritual journey of sorts, a voyage into the unexplored aspects of our identity. We move beyond the societal and personal layers of our existence, probing further into our core essence.
As we explored in our “Superpowers of Solitude” article, we find that as we delve deeper into the self, transcending the personal and societal layers, we inevitably come face to face with the broader perception of universal origin. Here, we realize that as part of the universe, our existence is fundamentally interdependent. This truth holds regardless of our worldview. Whether we subscribe to a secular perspective, considering the Big Bang as the moment of our cosmic birth, or lean towards a theistic belief system, where a divine power initiated creation, the implication remains the same - there is no absolute originality to anything people do. Everything we conceive or create is influenced, inspired, or informed by something or someone else.
These are heady philosophical insights that reorient our perspective of self and originality. Yet, when it comes to our initial discussion about being authentic, this explanation can feel unsatisfying. We find ourselves back at the starting point, still grappling with how to stand out, or even where we fit in.
This constant cycle of questions and the seemingly futile pursuit of an 'authentic self' might prompt us to rethink the framework we've been using. The term ‘authentic’ is often associated with the manufacture of an object, used to distinguish between the ‘genuine’ and the ‘fake’. However, when we apply this notion to human beings, it falters. We are not products off an assembly line, but rather, organic beings with a broad spectrum of complex emotions, experiences, and identities. There aren’t any ‘authentic’ or ‘fake’ versions of humans.
Therefore, the focus should not be on a misguided quest for an ‘authentic self’, but rather on aligning our societal roles and actions with our true nature. This is where the concept of integrity comes into play. The term 'integrity' stems from the Latin 'integritas', which means 'wholeness' or 'completeness'. It encompasses consistency of actions, values, methods, and outcomes. Rather than trying to discover some fundamental 'authentic self', we could strive to ensure that our actions, words, and roles align deeply with our Cardinal Values (as discussed in our Virtue article) and Good Faith Beliefs (as we discussed with The Barrel of Fish Debacle). This shift in perspective transforms the pursuit of authenticity from an introspective, often frustrating quest into a more grounded, coherent engagement with ourselves and the world around us.
The Journey Towards Integrity
In addressing the transition from ‘authenticity’ to integrity, we delve into the realms of spirituality, self-actualization, and societal roles. This journey is not just about conforming to societal norms, but rather developing and harmoniously integrating all aspects of our being.
The term ‘self-actualization’ was coined by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Often viewed as the pinnacle of human existence within this framework, self-actualization involves blossoming into our most integrated self, encompassing all elements of our humanity—physical, emotional, and social. Maslow’s perspective is fleshed out in his work ‘Towards a Psychology of Being’, part of the recommended reading on the Fool’s Reading List.
We deepen our understanding by turning to Aristotle, a philosopher whose views not only predate but significantly inform Maslow’s theories. Aristotle recognized us as not just social, but political animals. He pointed out our unique ability to communicate complex thoughts and form political systems as distinguishing human traits. This perception casts self-actualization in a new light, illustrating that the ‘self’ is not isolated but intrinsically interwoven with societal roles and interactions.
This Aristotelian lens was thoroughly explored in his seminal work ‘Nicomachean Ethics’. In it, he discusses the pursuit of Eudaimonia, a state of flourishing that comes from living in accordance with virtue and reason, a precursor to Maslow’s concept of self-actualization. In this light, the journey is not towards an ‘authentic self’—a notion more suited to manufactured objects—but towards a state of full integration. We aim to harmonize our inherent human characteristics with our societal roles and responsibilities, reflecting our nature as political animals.
With Aristotle’s perspective and Maslow’s concept of self-actualization as our guide, we realize that our journey is about becoming fully integrated human beings. It’s about embracing our societal roles, intertwining personal growth with shared responsibilities, and acknowledging our integration with our larger environment.
Social Roles and their Deep Influence
In our journey towards integrity, we find ourselves inevitably intersecting with the realm of social roles. These roles, often defined by the society we inhabit, heavily influence our identities and behaviors, impacting our process of self-actualization. It is thus paramount that we explore this terrain in detail to comprehend the forces at play and their deep influence on our lives.
Our quest takes us back to the mid-20th century—a time characterized by strong conformity to societal expectations, punctuated by two distinct eras of oppressive conformity: fascism and Sovietism. These periods serve as poignant reminders of how a culture centered around the collective can drive individuals to surrender their unique identities and conform to societal norms, often at the expense of their personal values and beliefs.
In these eras, individuals were coerced into complying with strictly defined roles. These roles were not mere guidelines or recommendations; they were rigid structures enforced by societal and political machinery. Individuals who deviated from these roles often faced severe consequences, leading to a culture of fear and obedience. The resulting disillusionment with societal roles created a palpable tension, prompting individuals to question the nature and purpose of these imposed structures.
Examining this period of history, we can observe how societal roles can exert a deep and often insidious influence on individuals. The pressure to conform can distort our perceptions of ourselves, leading us astray from our journey towards self-actualization and integrity. It serves as a reminder that our quest is not just about recognizing and understanding these societal roles, but also about challenging them and seeking ways to integrate them harmoniously with our inherent human characteristics.
As we journey from the era of oppressive conformity, we transition into a time when society increasingly valued individualism and nonconformity. This era emerges as a reaction to the disillusionment of strict societal roles, birthing a seemingly counterintuitive paradox. As we proceed further into our exploration, we will delve deeper into the dynamics of this modern nonconformity and its impact on our pursuit of integrity.
The Paradox of Nonconformity
As we continue our exploration of authenticity and integrity, it is essential to unpack the intriguing concept of nonconformity. Nonconformity, in essence, represents a rejection of prevailing societal norms, often viewed as a manifestation of individualism and authenticity. However, this notion engenders a paradox that is crucial to our understanding of human nature and social dynamics.
Nonconformity, in its purest form, is often interpreted as a means to maintain individuality, to resist societal pressures, and to uphold one’s authenticity. Many of these nonconforming individuals or groups distance themselves from the mainstream, believing their ideals, beliefs, or ways of life to be superior or more authentic than those espoused by the broader society.
Yet, herein lies the paradox: nonconformity frequently engenders its own forms of conformity. By rejecting societal norms and forming their own groups, these outcasts create their own unique subcultures with specific rules, customs, and expectations. Nonconformity, thus, inadvertently births new sets of norms to which members of these outcast groups must adhere.
This irony is profound. It emphasizes the complex dynamics between the individual and the collective, the pressure to conform and the desire for individuality, and the interplay between authenticity and social identity. It also reveals the intricacies of the human psyche. The mainstream culture tends to indulge the ego, leading us further away from a deeper understanding of the self. On the other hand, outcast groups draw individuals in with the allure of belonging to something greater than the self.
This dichotomy presents a dilemma. Our inherent desire to transcend the ego, a concept explored in depth in our “Pandemic of Loneliness” article mentioned above, often becomes conflated with the idea of ‘surpassing the self’. This misinterpretation can cause individuals to strive for an unattainable ideal of 'authenticity'. The result? A perpetual feeling of inadequacy, commonly known as the imposter syndrome, or even worse, a disintegration of one’s sense of identity.
It is crucial, then, to remember that the true quest isn’t about finding an ‘authentic self’ that is entirely distinct from the world around us. Nor is it about immersing ourselves in a group or cause to the extent that we lose sight of our individuality. Instead, it is about comprehending the vastness and complexity of the self, understanding its interconnected nature, and acknowledging that it encompasses much more than the ego. With this perspective, we can start to redefine our pursuit: not as a quest for an ‘authentic’ or manufactured identity, but as a journey towards a deeply rooted integrity that resonates with our essential Human Nature in general, and the particular roles we undertake in society.
Historical Examples: Hindu Brahmans and Roman Cults
As we delve deeper into the complexities of nonconformity and the paradox it embodies, it is beneficial to explore historical examples that provide valuable insights. These examples shed light on the mechanics of nonconformity and the formation of caste systems, underlining the recurring patterns that have persisted across different times and cultures.
Our first historical lens focuses on the Hindu Brahman caste system. The Brahman caste, recognized as the highest in the social hierarchy, was traditionally composed of scholars, teachers, and priests. These individuals were regarded as the spiritual leaders of society, whose primary function was to maintain the sacred knowledge. The Brahmans' perceived superiority was derived not from worldly wealth or military power, but from their spiritual status and their nonconformist way of life, deeply rooted in the religious and philosophical tenets of Hinduism.
In contrast to the larger societal norms centered around material pursuits, Brahmans lived austere lives dedicated to spirituality, reinforcing their nonconformity. Yet, as time went on, a rigid system of norms and expectations emerged within their own circle. What began as an act of nonconformity eventually morphed into its own form of conformity, mirroring the paradox we explored in the previous section.
Shifting our gaze to the West, we find parallel dynamics in the cults of Roman society. In ancient Rome, individuals often sought meaning and a sense of belonging outside the mainstream society by joining various cults, ranging from the cult of Isis to the cult of Mithras. These cults offered an alternative to the prevailing norms, representing nonconformist paths towards personal fulfillment and spiritual enlightenment.
Similar to the Brahmans, members of these cults lived according to unique rules and rituals, setting them apart from the larger society. Over time, however, these too evolved into structured systems with their own expectations and norms, once again illustrating the paradox of nonconformity.
Examining these historical examples, we observe a pattern of behavior that continues to manifest in today's polarized societies. The allure of nonconformity draws individuals towards groups that promise a path divergent from mainstream society, yet these groups often end up cultivating their own forms of conformity. In the next section, we will delve deeper into the dynamics of societal roles and titles, further illuminating this intriguing phenomenon.
Titles and Roles: The Superficial Transformation
In our society, titles and roles often carry significant weight, as they serve as markers of status, respect, or belonging. However, when we aim to depart from conformity, it's essential to understand the delicate dance between titles and roles, and the superficial transformations that might emerge.
Adopting a new role often involves assuming a new title, like changing a nametag on our social identity. This change can feel like a profound shift, a stride towards nonconformity. However, this title switch can sometimes foster an illusion of transformation without necessarily facilitating a genuine shift towards integrity. It becomes a veneer of change that can mask the static state beneath.
Furthermore, this change of title can sometimes give rise to a sense of superiority. For instance, someone transitioning from a mainstream role to a self-styled 'outcast' might adopt this new title as a badge of honor, viewing themselves as superior due to their deviation from societal norms. In these cases, the pursuit of nonconformity can inadvertently breed a new form of elitism, ironically mirroring the very structures they aim to reject.
Nevertheless, true transformation goes beyond superficial title changes. It calls for relinquishing any superiority complexes tethered to these nonconforming roles. It demands the recognition that nonconformity does not inherently translate to a ‘higher level of authenticity,’ and that the 'outcast' status does not automatically yield a more genuine existence.
"Fools have an impenetrable defense… but it is NOT their title that makes them invincible… ANYONE who places too much importance on external labels is a Fool anyway…
…Fools invincible because they have Nothing to defend lol" -Upaya
In our journey towards true integrity, superficial transformations must be set aside. Instead, we need to harmonize our innate Human Nature with our actions and societal roles, fostering genuine self-understanding that isn't confined to titles or labels. This deep transformation moves beyond a mere change in appearance towards a more profound alignment of our character with our actions, ultimately leading to a richer and more nuanced understanding of ourselves and a more harmonious interaction with the larger world.
Christianity and Buddhism: The Outcasts of Outcasts
In a world where religious and social hierarchies were often rigidly defined, the emergence of Buddhism and Christianity represented a profound shift. These movements, in their inception, were not about tearing down societal structures, but rather about humanizing them, bringing a compassionate, egalitarian perspective that emphasized the intrinsic worth of every individual.
The Buddhists, in their choice of attire, consciously donned the clothes associated with society's outcasts - the 'untouchables'. However, this was not an act of rebellion or a rejection of society. It was a profound gesture of solidarity and empathy, a clear declaration of their commitment to transcend societal hierarchies and connect with all of humanity, even the most marginalized. In essence, they sought to foster an inclusive society by living out the change they wished to see.
The early Christians found themselves in a similar position. To proclaim oneself a Christian during the initial years of the faith was to risk severe persecution. It was, in many ways, to accept the role of an outcast. However, this self-designation was not merely a defiant challenge to societal norms, but more a testament to the transformative power of love and compassion. These individuals, in their willingness to endure societal scorn, physical harm, and even death embodied the teachings of Christ, fostering communities grounded in empathy and mutual support.
These movements, in embracing the title and role of the 'outcast', served as powerful examples of integrity and virtue. Their followers did not seek to elevate themselves above society, but rather to fully engage with it, bringing about change through compassionate action and genuine engagement.
In essence, these early Buddhists and Christians, sought to effect societal transformation from within, and so chose to live as outcasts within their societies, rather than trying to overthrow it with a rebellion from the outside. They exemplified the journey towards personal integrity, showing how the adoption of an 'outcast' role could be a pathway towards the transformation of both self and society. Indeed, the transformative effect these movements had on their followers and society was not as much a product of their teachings, though wise, but more of the integrity displayed by these early 'outcasts,' not only within themselves, but also with society at large. These individuals didn't just carry a title; they embodied the essence of their faiths and philosophies. They weren't just 'holy'; they were 'whole.'
To recall Aristotle's perspective, we as humans are innately capable of recognizing virtue when we see it. Virtue is not something that can be faked or imitated; it's a deep-seated character trait that shapes one's actions, words, and interactions. When individuals embody virtue, their integrity shines through, resonating with those around them and inspiring change.
As the Buddhists and Christians lived out their beliefs in their daily lives, their genuineness, compassion, and virtue were evident. However, as these movements grew, the titles "Buddhist" and "Christian" eventually became badges of honor and respect, paradoxically losing some of their initial transformative power. The gorgeous, flowing saffron robes worn by some modern Buddhist monks and the hubris sometimes found masquerading as "Christian Humility" are a far cry from the simplicity and humility of their early counterparts. It's essential, therefore, to understand that these modern expressions, while visually or rhetorically appealing, can sometimes be antithetical to the original teachings and practices. The true transformative power lies not in the title one carries or the robe one wears, but in living a life of integrity, imbued with resilience, compassion, and virtue.
Budai and the Power of Virtuous Action
Throughout the evolution of spiritual movements such as Buddhism and Christianity, their narratives have been subject to reinterpretation and transformation. Often, roles and titles initially synonymous with humility and the betterment of humanity have morphed into symbols of exclusivity or superiority. In this fluid and ever-changing landscape, the need for reevaluating and contemporizing these practices remains critical. As we seek to embody these ancient virtues in our modern lives, the internet, with its wide-ranging networks and global accessibility, emerges as a fascinating arena for such reinterpretation. However, to effectively navigate this journey and appreciate its modern manifestations, it's essential to root our understanding in historical context. One way to achieve this is by investigating the life of a historical figure who epitomized virtue. This approach not only deepens our understanding but also offers direction for our search.
Enter Budai, a figure who might strike a familiar chord in many of us. If you've ever walked into a Chinese restaurant, you've likely seen a statue of a rotund, jolly man and assumed that this was 'the Buddha.' Some may chuckle at the thought that such a figure, with his hearty laughter and ample belly, could have been a proponent of self-moderation and discipline. But this opinion is clearly only supported by 3 things–
“...ignorance, stupidity, and nothing else.” -Douglas Adams be praised.
Firstly, it's important to differentiate between Budai and the historical Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, was an Indian ascetic known for his lean physique—quite contrary to the image of the rotund Budai. However Siddhartha advocated for the Middle Path, avoiding the extremes of indulgence and asceticism.
On the other hand, Budai, was a Chinese bodhisattva who possessed an appearance and lifestyle that was a stark contrast to the stereotypical holy man. His signature garb was unbleached linen, often dirty, which set him apart from the traditional image of holy men in gorgeous flowing robes.The name Budai, translating to 'cloth sack,' symbolizes his humble lifestyle. This unconventional attire led to perceptions of Budai as an outcast or even a criminal. However Budai wandered from one place to another, picking up discarded items which he skillfully converted into toys for children.
Despite the initial assumptions based on his appearance, Budai's actions presented a different story. These actions, rooted in integrity and virtue, shifted the perceptions of those who had initially misjudged him. His behavior demonstrated an alignment between his internal integrity and his external actions, effecting a real transformation in others' perspectives.
His virtuous influence was such that, despite his unconventional appearance, Budai was frequently welcomed into people's homes. They shared meals with him, accepting him into their spaces and lives. Today, Budai is remembered as the patron saint of an enjoyable meal, a testament to the transformative power of authentic goodness and virtue.
Budai's life offers us insights into how societal perspectives can change upon encountering genuine goodness. He serves as a symbol of the ability of genuine displays of virtue to challenge superficial judgments based on appearances. His example prompts us to apply this understanding to our own lives, thereby challenging societal biases and embracing the journey towards true integrity. Budai's story is a powerful reminder that the quest for wholeness goes beyond physical appearances and touches the very core of our shared human experience.
The Real Transformation in a Modern Context
The quest for integrity is a deeply personal journey, taking different forms for different individuals. As we seek modern counterparts to these ancient integrated outcasts, our conversation naturally returns to the discussion from our “Virtuous Cynicism vs Mere Misanthropy” article. In today’s context, the path of the ‘Light Troll’, underpinned by the principles of virtuous cynicism, emerges as one possible avenue towards self-transformation. It’s important to note that while this path provides insightful lessons on navigating the societal dynamics of our digital age, it is but one of many routes to achieving integrity. We explore it not as the exclusive path, but as a compelling example in our modern context.
In today's digital world, the term ‘troll’ often conveys images of instigators and disruptors. These figures are seen as outcasts, often vilified for their behavior. However, there exists a different type of troll, the 'Light Troll.' Unlike their disruptive counterparts, Light Trolls serve as agents of change, compassion, and importantly, integrity. For a more in-depth understanding of the distinction between Light Trolls and the Dark Trolls commonly associated with the term, we invite you to explore our Trolling page.
As we delve into the transformative journey of a Light Troll, the transformative journey begins with resilience. Adopting the label of 'Light Troll' serves as a litmus test for resilience, as it invites skepticism and incredulity from others. It involves adopting a label often associated with disruptive or negative behaviors. Similar to the bravery shown by members of Alcoholics Anonymous who openly introduce themselves as alcoholics, claiming the title of a ‘Light Troll’ requires resilience in the face of potential misunderstanding or prejudice. It demands fearless self-expression without the safety net of guaranteed acceptance or positive feedback.
This resilience is the foundation for compassion. Wearing the title of 'Light Troll' puts one in a position where unfair judgments are common, fostering empathy for those who are marginalized or misunderstood. This isn't about leading a crusade for the rebels; instead, it's about developing a deeper understanding of shared human experiences, reminding us of our interconnectedness, and helping us see past societal biases and stereotypes and how these factors influence our relationships with others.
The understanding that we gain from embracing the Light Troll label informs the final and most transformative step: the quest to genuinely embody virtue. With the negative connotations attached to the term 'troll', attempts at appearing good or virtuous are dismissed outright. The only way forward is to simply be good, to embody virtue in our actions, words, and interactions. In this position of societal skepticism, integrity can't be feigned—it has to be lived.
This process embodies the Way of the Light Troll: a journey from resilience to compassion, culminating in the pursuit of genuine virtue. It's a testament to the transformative power of integrity that goes beyond conforming or non-conforming, focusing instead on honest and sincere expression with others and the world.
This form of 'virtuous cynicism' in the modern age pushes us to scrutinize the status quo and reconsider our accepted beliefs and societal roles. Even though the term 'troll' often comes with negative connotations, we suggest reclaiming this term to indicate a light-hearted, thought-provoking ‘loyal opposition’.
The negative connotation associated with the term 'troll' serves another important function—it acts as a continual reminder of the fundamentally light-hearted nature of this role. This helps to mitigate the sense of superiority that often arises within outcast groups, serving as a constant reminder that the aim is not to create a new 'elite,' but to foster open-mindedness and promote thoughtful discussion. It reminds the troll that they, too, are part of this shared journey of discovery and growth.
Just as ancient outcasts catalyzed societal transformation by challenging norms and values, today's 'light trolls' can prompt us to rethink our societal biases and norms, moving us closer to a state of integrity where our individual actions resonate with our innate Human Nature, and our chosen societal roles. By adopting this modern role, we continue the transformative journey initiated by ancient outcasts, integrating their wisdom into our modern context. The Light Troll, thus, serves as a modern illustration of this journey, reminding us of the universal quest for integrity in the midst of the complexities of our digital age.
In reflecting on our exploration of the ‘outcast’ as a transformative role, we appreciate that the journey doesn’t revolve around a search for individual authenticity, but rather a quest for universal integrity. This quest is about recognizing the deeply interconnected nature of our existence and our roles in society, creating a harmonious resonance between the individual and the collective, the personal and the universal.
This perspective urges us to let go of the obsolete notion of ‘authenticity,’ a term more suited to antique shops than descriptions of human complexity. We advocate a focus on integrity - a harmony between our innate Human Nature, our actions and behaviors, and our societal roles. It is from this harmonious interaction, not singularity, that we derive our true identity.
Our exploration of the ‘Light Troll’ exemplifies this revised understanding in a modern digital context. Embracing this ‘outcast’ role demands resilience, nurtures compassion, and necessitates an unwavering commitment to genuine virtue.
However, as societal biases shift and old ‘outcast’ titles gain social respect, the transformative potential of these roles may alter. Consequently, we need to perpetually reflect, reassess, and refresh our approaches to maintain integrity amidst dynamic societal changes.
In this transformative journey, the dialogue between self and the world becomes our source of integrity, belonging, and understanding. Through this dialogue, we discover The Way of the ‘Light Troll,’ forging a path towards a harmonious integration of all aspects of our existence.
“So far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons” -Desiderata