Who Are You, Being?

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” — Kurt Vonnegut

Authenticity is terrifying. It is terrifying because, among other things, it requires vulnerability, and in our culture we’ve been taught that vulnerability is a weakness. Which, of course, is hogwash. Vulnerability relies on an inner strength which all of us possess, but few of us acknowledge. If we acknowledge it, we find ourselves suddenly bereft of excuses for not exercising it. And who wants to deal with all that when there’s probably something good on TV?

I once dated a woman who wanted to be Audrey Hepburn. Why anyone would want to be Audrey Hepburn was never explained to me. And, in all fairness to Audrey Hepburn, why would anyone want to be other than who they actually are? Audrey Hepburn didn’t become Audrey Hepburn by trying to be Tallulah Bankhead, after all.

I sometimes fancy myself equal parts Groucho Marx, Samuel Beckett, Kurt Vonnegut, and Bill Bruford. I can flatter myself like no one else can.

I know — and you probably know — a few people who are so concerned about how they present themselves to the world that they threaten to become caricatures of real people. They cultivate their identity to the point where it becomes studied and practiced, yet hollow and wooden. This is not necessarily a fatal flaw. It accounts for the Bob Dylans and Andy Warhols of the world, the F. Scott Fitzgeralds and Lord Byrons, the Steve Jobs and Donald Trumps, who are highly successful in their chosen fields but whose inner cores appear to have become consumed by fictional characters they invented.

By the same token, I’m always a little wary of people who profess to “keeping it real,” because they tend to provide the interpersonal equivalent of “reality” television. One person I know wants to be outrageous. Another wants to be enigmatic. A third must be fashionable. Another clings to crudity as if it were a life-raft in a sea of self-doubt.

I’m here to urge you: Don’t be those people. The real, live, feeling, breathing person you actually are, underneath all the layers of defense, underneath the veneer of hipness, relevance, wit, glamour, poise, erudition, and sophistication: that person is a thousand time better than any fiction you can invent for yourself. And, what’s more, that person has a soul which can be nourished by authentic, vulnerable interaction.

All the world is not a stage. That’s just pretty poetry.

My father has given me many invaluable pieces of advice over the years. Among my favorites is: “If you ask someone how they are, be prepared for an answer.”

This past Sunday I asked someone I hadn’t seen in a few weeks: “How are you doing?” I asked this with intent, not to simply be polite. And she must have sensed my intent, because the mask came down, the mask which had, up until that point, beamed with happiness and good cheer. Tears came to her eyes, and she confided in me that she was facing an enormous and tragic challenge in her life, one which neither I nor anyone else can remove from her path. It made me sad, but also, in a strange way, happy. Because she had been carrying that burden with her all day, possibly for many days, a burden which none of us could see. It required a question to uncover the truth, and it was a question which had to be asked authentically and received vulnerably. My hope is that some tiny portion of that burden was lifted from her shoulders and that she might be able to relieve herself of more of it as time passes and she processes her grief. I, for one, will be there to listen. Not to fix the problem, because the problem can’t be fixed. But simply to be present and listen well.

The question which matters is not “Who are you being?” but “Who are you, being?”

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