“Living your Truth” is only for Madmen

Jeffrey Erkelens
Jun 18 · 6 min read
Illustration by Matt Holman

If we spoke our truth… said exactly what’s on our mind, really were faithful to our authentic selves, most of us would lose our jobs, many of our friends, possibly our partner, and be ostracized by the community in which we live.

Authenticity, I’ve discovered, is a sure ticket to exile and hardship.

Within the specialized, cultural superorganism in which we find ourselves, society forces us to compromise, wear deceptive masks, censor our speech, bridle our exuberance, our zaniest passions and darkest desires — a veritable suicide of the best parts of ourselves.

If one follows one’s God, one’s own conscience, everybody objects — strange how little man belongs to himself, how much he is yet the community’s property. — Henry Miller

If it weren’t for money, right?

Astounding how an imaginary concept — a symbol that is conjured by, and only exists in our febrile minds — now robs us of the capacity to imagine a different reality for ourselves… one closer to our essence.

“Living in bad faith” is how existentialist philosopher Sartre named this dis-ease.

We are in bad faith, he said, whenever we tell ourselves that things have to be a certain way and shut our eyes to other options.

The most stark description of bad faith, posits modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton, is found in Being and Nothingness, when Sartre notices a waiter who strikes him as overly devoted to his role, as if he were — first and foremost — a waiter rather than a free human being.

His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the patrons with a step that is a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly… his voice, his eyes, express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer.

“The man has convinced himself that he is necessarily a waiter rather than a free creature who could be a jazz pianist or a fisherman on a North Sea trawler,” says Botton. “The same attitude of ingrained, optionless servitude might today be observed in an IT Manager or a parent collecting his child from school. Each of these might also feel: ‘I have to do what I am doing, I have no choice, I am not free, my role makes me do what I do.’

“Money is the one factor that most discourages people to experience themselves as free. Most of us will shut down a range of possible options (moving abroad, trying out a new career, leaving a partner) by saying: ‘If only I didn’t have to worry about money.’

“This passivity in the face of money enraged Sartre at a political level. He thought of capitalism as a giant machine designed to create a sense of necessity which doesn’t in fact exist in reality. It makes us tell ourselves we have to work a certain number of hours or buy a particular product or service. But in this, there is only the denial of freedom — and a refusal to consider the possibility of living in other ways.”

This is why one meets— like poet Walt Whitman observed two centuries ago — so many people who are “smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under their breast-bones, hell under their skull-bones, keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of [themselves], speaking of anything else but never of [themselves].”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of ‘The Little Prince,’ sensed this same dispiriting condition riding the bus in the late 1920s on his way to the airfield from where he would pilot his first dangerous mission for Aeropostale delivering mail between Toulouse, in southwestern France, and Dakar, in West Africa. Riding with him were several old clerks bobbing their heads and smoking in the predawn darkness.

“I heard them talking in murmurs and whispers,” recalls Saint-Exupéry. “They talked about illness, money, shabby domestic cares. Their talk painted the walls of the dismal prison in which these men had locked themselves up.”

Ever the dashing, daring adventurer, Antoine continues his meditation by exonerating those men:

“Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball [of] genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the wind, the tides, and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”


Miller at Big Sur, CA. 1944

“It may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise, rather than a celebrity in a world that has lost all sense of values.”

When writer Henry Miller moved to a small cabin nestled in the mountains at Big Sur, he found a group of people who were the antithesis to those living in bad faith.

“These individuals,” Miller wrote, “are not concerned with undermining a vicious system but with leading their own lives on the fringe of society. What have these men discovered? That the American way of life is an illusory kind of existence, that the price demanded for the security and abundance it pretends to offer is too great.

“The presence of these renegades, small in number though they be, is but another indication that the machine is breaking down. When the smashup comes, as now seems inevitable, they are more likely to survive the catastrophe than the rest of us. At least, they will know how to get along without cars, without refrigerators, without vacuum cleaners, electric razors, and all the other indispensables.”

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense — the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent — and you are sane -
Demur — you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain — Emily Dickinson

It is not that society necessarily wants individuals like Miller to return to the herd (one bad apple spoils the whole bunch). It’s the system that cannot afford others to break rank so makes it nearly impossible for the renegade to survive. The whole American economy would collapse, said writer Erica Jong, if we all recovered from our addictions. Just think of what would happen to the female shoe industry if someone developed a remedy to cure women of their incomprehensible fetish.

Having broken free and joined Walt Whitman on the Open Road, I, too, am experiencing society’s cold shoulder. But in exchange, I have discovered a treasure few will ever find… the truth in what is written in The Bhagavad Gita, that it is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly. I have also discovered that I am luckier than all the billionaires out there because I know one thing they don’t: I know I have enough. I learned the hard way that one can never have enough of what one does not need in the first place.

When the smashup comes — which really is starting to seem inevitable — you will find me, penniless surely, yet placid and serene, “broad with the haughty breath of the Universe,” with fingers at the ready to chronicle humanity’s denouement and overdue return to sanity.


In the meantime, join my mailing list for future dispatches from the world of madmen.

Read the boy’s version of this article which is part of ‘The Hero in You.’

Jeffrey Erkelens

Written by

Flying fish. Iconoclast. Currently writing ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys: https://www.facebook.com/bookforboys/

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade