This is part of my series on stories. You can read an introduction here.
I recently watched an interesting indy film called While We’re Young.* It follows Josh and Cornelia, a 40-something couple working in documentaries, who re-examine their life after meeting a 20-something couple. Josh, who works in non-fiction and holds authenticity in high esteem, is shown in contrast to the ironic hipster culture, represented by the younger couple. One pointed caricature in the film highlighting hipsters’ ironic way of life is a young woman wearing t-shirts that say “Some college I never went to” and “Some crappy band.” This cynical attitude that makes everything a joke not only devalues the object of the joke but also masks the real person making the joke. The movie doesn’t just point out this characteristic in millennials, though, it exposes it in all of us. My generation is not the first or only to struggle with authenticity. Living insincerely is not a generational problem; it’s a human problem.
Josh at one point describes a hipster, saying “It’s like he once saw a sincere person and he’s been imitating him ever since.” But we see Josh and Cornelia do the same thing: they start dressing different to fit in with their new friends and doing things far outside their norm, while blowing off their old, age-appropriate friends. The old friends are new parents spouting every tired parenting cliche you can think of; they outwardly project a picture-perfect life with a baby while their real experience is very different. There’s also a Baby Boomer who gives a speech about authenticity, only to immediately go against what he said because dishonesty serves him better. Josh is seeking authenticity in his films and his life, yet is surrounded by pretense.
Josh’s quest resonates with me as a picture of my own desire for authenticity. I long for real relationships but, like the movie characters, hide behind a mask. I want people to accept me, so I make myself acceptable because I am afraid of what people will think of the real me. The question I fear will most expose me is “How are you?” Most of the time I am not fine – I might be fighting with my husband, or depressed about our adoption process, or homesick and lonely. But I can’t actually say that, it would open me up to criticism and judgment. So I lie and say “I’m fine.”
All of us long for authenticity but hide at the same time. We yearn to be known, but fear our true selves will not be loved. So we put on a mask in an attempt to seem more interesting, more likable, more acceptable. The mask might keep us safe, but it also keeps everyone at arm’s length.
As Christians, we can escape this fear of others because we are already accepted. God knows every part of us (including the rotten mess of our hearts), still wants us, and accepts us in Christ. Knowing this, there is no longer a need for a mask; we can live life authentically, not ruled by what others think of us. Then we can, in turn, accept others and cultivate genuine relationships. I’m not advocating bearing your deepest secrets to everyone that asks how you’re doing, but we can stop pretending everything is fine when it’s not and, with discretion, open ourselves up.
In a society where it’s so easy to portray a carefully crafted image, authenticity is actually hard work and even painful at times. Being real demands vulnerability and the willingness to enter into the mess of other people’s lives. But we can do these difficult things because the Gospel has freed and empowered us to be real human beings, not just pretty, hollow shells.
*This is not a blanket movie recommendation, just my thoughts. IMDB has a great Parents Guide if you’re considering watching it and would like to review the content.