Why is Being Authentic So Hard?

I woke up this morning and heard the news that Don Imus has been thrown off the air permamently with MSNBC because of some stupid comments he made about the Rutgar’s ladies basketball team on his show. Then, I heard a presidential candidate, Barak Obama, weigh in, saying he deplored the comments and he would be happy to have his daughters play on such a team. This, after days of outrage by Rev. Al Sharpton, someone who I have often thought of as an opportunist, and this trend seems to continue.

No one can defend people saying stupid things. But how many times do we need to just consider the source? Imus never holds himself out to be exemplary of polite society and miss Manners political correctness. He is the opposite, and it’s his irreverance that people like. I often tuned in to his show, not for the Hoawrd Stern moments of sophmoric stupidity, but for mus’s talent at being himself and getting others to do the same.

Imus is popular not only because he constantly flirted with the line of what was appropriate and what was not, but because he is honest and authentic. While Imus’s show ended up clothed in more of an “official” news show mantel, than say, Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, it was never supposed to be 60 Minutes or The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.

Imus’s talent has always been in getting people to stop with the sound bites and just say what they think. Whether it’s Tim Russert, News anchors, journalists, or politicians, he had a way to get people to be themselves on the air that is becoming ever more scarce in main stream media. And I will sincerely miss that aspect of his show- hearing what people like Tim Russert, Maureen Dowd, Jeff Greenfield, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and others had to say, taking off the social mask and mantle of political correctness, and just being themselves.

I guess people are always looking for external validation of some sort. Whether it’s a raise and using that as a proxy for your worth in your job, or just hearing something nice from your spouse or kids, we feel better inside when someone from outside ourselves gives us praise. Yet, I have come to believe that no external source of validation will ever be able to fill up that hole you have inside if you are not comfortable with yourself first.

I found it was a blessing to turn forty. The magic thing about 40 for me was a realization that I was in charge of my life, not others. I had to stop waiting around for life to come and grab me, I had to start actively engaging life head on. Rather than waiting on the sidelines, I had to get into the game, or stop whining about spending my life in the shadows. Shadows are safe, but boring; sunlight is risky, but a lot more fun.

And part of this transformation means being honest with myself and others. This doesn’t mean trampling over the feelings of other people with “brutal” honesty, but it does mean needing to say No instead of a polite yes when I’m asked to do something I don’t want to do. I need to be centered with myself, to be able to be honest with myself, in order to be honest and open with others.

We all have a closet full of social masks, of sides of ourselves we bring out for special occassions, or for people we are trying to impress. Are we insincerely polite to people sometimes, trying to impress them with our more extroverted, or projected self? Do we put on a brave face for going to that business dinner with people we really aren’t that fond of? Sure. And all of this is necessary. But I think we need to think in these terms concurrently:

  • Not everyone will like us, no matter how hard we try to please them or pretend to be who they want us to be;
  • Trying to please everyone will just end up causing contridictions, and trip us up as we try to find the “right” mask for this person or situation, and they will end up seeing our naked underbelly anyway;
  • Being authentic to ourselves does not grant us an excuse to be vile, ever, to anyone;
  • We can respect others while still disagreeing with their thoughts and opinions;
  • We need to learn when to comment on something, and when to be silent;
  • Silence does not necessarily mean “opinion free”;
  • Changing your mind about something is not a weakness but a strength;
  • and lastly- If you can’t tell yourself the truth, how can you be honest with others?

Making the shift to this sense of truth with myself means accepting things that aren’t always pleasant. Yes, I need to take better care of myself. I need to manage my time better. I need to avoid situations where I find myself compelled to be someone I am not. But I can tell you, deciding to be myself and to stop trying to always make others happy at whatever cost has been a life changing experience. It means that I also spot the “smoke screen” self of others much easier than ever before.

I wrote this post in part because I ‘m disturbed by the piling on on Don Imus, and our vilification of people, without giving them an attempt to be honestly sorry and make reparations. People make mistakes, and need to make mistakes to learn. If we insist on crucification for every mistake anyone makes, rigid consistancy at the expense of thought and reflection, how are things every going to get better in the world?

How can I realistically teach my children to take risks, to live a life of exploration of new things, if we make the penalty for failing, for making errors, for being imperfect so high?

What Imus did is not okay, but he deserves a chance to try to make it better without losing everything in the process.  Politicians, like Barak Obama, who are competing for our trust and faith, need to make sure they know their own truth and can be honest will all of us about who they are.  We don’t need anyone else who looks at government as a melodrama, where they are just portraying a character in a political theatre presentation.

For a country that seems to be so religious, we certainly seem to be forgetting the key concepts of forgiveness, charity to others, and mercy.  Civil discourse would be a lot better if we could just remember than kindness is not weakness but strength;  forgiving need not equal forgetting; and we all deserve a chance at redemption.

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