How well does one person ever know another person? This is the question I have recently been asking myself. With the increasing use of social media and electronic communications, we can stay connected to others without even picking up the phone, let alone meeting face to face. But I have a feeling that these connections may well be merely skimming the surface. In life we project a facade, the best version of ourselves that we want others to see. That is normal, and natural. Of course our egos want to portray an aspirational prototype and social media, for example, is geared towards this. But in reality, it transpired that not many people truly know me at all. Why is that? If you have only ever met someone at a party or event, you will likely have formed an impression based on meeting them for a couple of hours in a crowded room. If you know me from my social media, you are only getting a morsel that I have decided to make known to everyone. These are perhaps not the best environments for authenticity.
What is authenticity? The Oxford English Dictionary describes authenticity as ‘the quality of being genuine or true’. How many of us are truly authentic in our day-to-day interactions? What is the quality of the relationships that we have? And are we even allowed to be authentic?
I became frustrated as I realised that many of my day-to-day interactions did not feel authentic. As we live in an age of populism, the majority slowly but surely drowns out individual voices and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a common strand of humanity. This is the reference by which many people live. After all, who wants to be left behind? If this is the new standard, well then, simply follow it. Everyone is striving and yet must appear to be effortlessly achieving their goals. The strain on our faces, as the schism widens between our true selves and the new rules of society, says it all.
It was Alexis de Tocqueville who, centuries ago, warned of majority tyranny in democratic nations. The minority view would be cast aside as the popular vote would trundle forward. But who would have predicted that our very sense of selves would be called into question? When your thoughts are no longer your own, when you feel pressured to adopt certain opinions and rules for living, you are no longer an individual. Populism is indeed tyrannical, and following the crowd is the very antithesis of authenticity.
Added to that, democratisation in a networked space has turned us into our own mini-celebrities, promulgating our own truths online to those who want to listen (myself included, this is a blog after all). But where everyone now has a voice, we have become surprisingly monotonous. There is no chaos or anarchy in our democratised, hyper-networked society, there are simply lots of people saying the same thing over and over. In an attempt to find individuality in a world that has turned increasingly hostile and all encompassing in its dominant ideology, we seem to be losing the battle. Those who do stand aside from the crowd are in danger of being labelled as being ‘woke’, a new term that refers to anyone who has an opinion challenging injustices. But the opposite, laying dormant as the world takes a very sorry turn, is, in my opinion, far worse.
The thing with authenticity is that if you are not living your life authentically, you will know it. You will feel lethargic and forced. You will feel that you are not living true to yourself, and in my case, I became acutely aware that I was walking down the wrong path when I could not recognise myself anymore. For every real connection I had a handful of inauthentic relationships. And these inauthentic connections are actively encouraged, by social media, by well-meaning family who think you need to get out more, by our society.
According to a UK government Community Life Survey for 2019-2020, 74% of those surveyed meet up in person with family members or friends once a week or more, rising to 81% communicating by phone and 84% exchanging texts or instant messages with family or friends once a week or more. These same people surveyed overwhelmingly responded that they had a support network (95% surveyed said that if they needed help there are people who would be there for them), and this would suggest that community life is thriving. But I still question the depth of these connections. We are talking to each other more than ever, but what are we saying? Are these exchanges meaningful? You might not be alone, but are you truly ‘showing up’ when you meet?
Now I’m not saying that you should pour your heart out to the first stranger you meet at the bus stop. There is a lot to be said for leaving things unsaid. But I do think that there is an irony in a world where we can now say so much, we are in reality saying very little. The recent pandemic has highlighted the need for social connection and community. This time, where we are all socially distanced, has led to a sense of social fragmentation, that we are far apart not only physically but also emotionally.
And so, I propose a new year’s resolution. To seek out authentic connection and to live life as authentically as possible. Take the time to get to know someone and to let them get to know you, the real you, all of you. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? But if we don’t do that, we are signing up to a life less lived. And wouldn’t that be worse? Don’t be afraid of being judged as wanting. I know that I would rather know the worst of someone, than to not really know them at all.
Being yourself, it seems, is easier said than done.