Your boss just gave you a “coaching.” You don’t agree with him, but you sheepishly nod your head and then play your part. Then you talk to a customer; you say several polite things so as to stay in character. You meet a friend after work, and talk with interest about several things you’re not really interested in. Then you two go to a party, and you laugh and say the right things at the right times so as to fit in. Tomorrow morning you will enter stage left into the church and put on your pious face. You fall in line and play your role.
Your boss just gave you a “coaching.” You don’t agree with him, so you storm out of the room. Then you talk to a customer; you tell him to buzz off because you are not in the mood. You meet a friend after work, and you tell several stories that are obviously uninteresting to him—you drone on anyway. At the party, you do and say whatever suits your fancy, sometimes to the chagrin of other guests. And you’re not the pious type, so there’s no way you’re dragging yourself to Mass tomorrow. You just “be yourself.”
These two “yous” are obviously opposites in many respects. The first one is in a sorry state of affairs, fettered in on all sides by what he thinks he must do to fit in. All these boundaries do violence to him, suppressing his unique personality and twisting him into something he is not. He is not authentic—i.e., free to be oneself.
The second person, at first glance, seems more free and authentic, but he is no model of good living either. Inconsiderate and boorish, he is acting more like a child than an adult. Although he is free from being restricted by others’ expectations or by external boundaries, his behavior leaves him without the freedom to relate meaningfully to others or to strive for goals which require disciplined effort. He is not free to be fully himself, not because of boundaries, but because of the lack thereof. Thus, he actually has more in common with the first person than what first meets the eye: both are inauthentic.
Authenticity is not so much about rejecting boundaries, but about rejecting bad ones and being guided by good ones. Bad boundaries lessen one’s freedom and hinder one from becoming more fully oneself. The boundaries repressing the people-pleaser above are bad boundaries, even if they’re self-imposed. Contrarily, good boundaries and motivations aid one to grow into the best version of oneself and actually increase freedom. The boundaries imposed by virtue and the commandments of God are examples of good boundaries.
Guided by these boundaries, all that is disordered in a person’s personality and temperament will be smelted away, and all that is good in them will shine all the brighter, reaching new heights and a wider freedom. Far from detracting from authenticity, these boundaries are its safeguard and promoter. They provide a map for the journey of life, giving one the ability to see the vastness of the terrain and to recognize the height of one’s calling: “Put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
Photo by Andrew Preble