Saturday, May 21, 2016

Becoming Authentic

I've been in a bookclub since the 1980s. We've watched each other grow through all the stages of life. We've also watched each other go deeper, leaving work identities behind as we created lives that expressed authenticity. I hasten to add that this is a pretty authentic bunch at any stage in their life, but there is something about aging that frees us to become more ourselves. Most importantly it is a group that is intellectually curious and seeks to understand the world around us.

So much of my life is about output: painting, writing and speaking. Reading is one of my inputs. It allows me to take in new ideas that feed me or revisit my understanding based on new information. Lately authenticity seems to be a recurring theme.

My bookclub is reading a book called Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt. This is a time of states passing laws targeting transgender people and their use of the restroom of their choice. With that in mind we decided that perhaps we should learn more about the broader topic. With a rather laissez faire perspective, I knew where I was politically. It was none of my business and certainly nothing that states should be mucking around in. It seemed like a silly issue for them to even address. As I began the book, I didn't expect my understanding to deepen dramatically. I know of people who are transgender, not well enough to question them about their experience, but enough to be sympathetic to the difficulties of choosing that path. It is not one that people choose lightly.

The book follows the true story of a young boy who identified as female from a very young age. S/he was a twin and her brother saw her as his sister from very early on. I was intrigued by the fact that her playmates also shared that perception. The person who struggled the most with it was her father who ultimately became a strong advocate. Her mother just wanted her child to be happy and saw early on that it would be as a female. Ultimately Nicole received hormones and later the required surgery to become physically female with the full support of her family. In the midst of these developments, the question of which restroom should be used was raised and a lawsuit filed and won. Many in the school system were sympathetic and supportive, but were trying to navigate a difficult course of divided opinion. (There is an excellent NPR interview with the family if you'd like to learn more)

At the same time I was re-reading the Chosen by Chaim Potek. I had read this many years ago, but as my understanding of Judaism had deepened, my appreciation of the book deepened as well. The book looks at the friendship between two Jewish boys in New York in the 1940s. Both have learned fathers who influence them greatly. One of the fathers is a Hassid, a Tzaddik, a leadership role for Hassidic Jews that is passed down through generations. This weighs heavily on his son who wishes to pursue another path yet feels constrained by centuries of expectations. He too was seeking authenticity, a life that aligned with his intellectual understanding.

One would not typically link these two stories, and yet that search for personal authenticity permeates both. It occurs to me that life is an effort to attain authenticity in whatever form it may take. We start with biological and familial constraints and acquire cultural constraints as we move beyond our families into the broader world. Then we spend much of our life shedding unnecessary constraints to find authenticity. Some people are perhaps much closer to their authentic selves early on, but for many of us it is something we move towards as we age. There is something quite miraculous about finding our place in the world, feeling that we are aligned with what we are to do and how we represent ourselves in the world. It is a universal story and we all share the search, yet because it is about authenticity each of our outcomes is uniquely our own.

1 comment:

  1. Love that last paragraph-- what a good discussion of the search for authenticity. Spot on, I think.