My authentic self
You can really only find your authentic self by getting completely away from the mimetic treadmill
The last time I was actually in touch with my authentic self, as opposed to searching around for it, or insisting that I was showing it, or resolving within myself to show it, was probably some twelve years ago. I was living alone in a studio apartment on Columbia Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. The apartment had a bay window that let light in on three sides, and shortly after moving in I went to find a lazy boy recliner on Craigslist to put there so I could sit and read by the window with the nice light. I was twenty-six at the time, which is to say I hadn’t yet reached the age where one begins to have strong opinions about furniture.
Anyway, the lazy boy suited me just fine. It was the living alone that mattered. I did so for six months, in the aftermath of a tragic relationship which perhaps could have worked for the long haul had I been a little more mature. We laughed a lot together and the sex was excellent and we thought the same way about money and about living a frugal, simple life. In short, there was relatively little to argue about, which is a good first step in a long-lasting partnership.
On our one-year anniversary I took her to the Kennedy Center to the cheapest show playing at the time (I was after the perception of fanciness, after all, and cheap tickets to the Kennedy Center did the trick perfectly). We listened to a gifted young Asian pianist play the entirety of Pictures at an Exhibition, which is one those pieces of classical music which today might have been a score to an epic dramatic HBO series, which is to say it is an eminently accessible piece of music. I later learned during one the three big fights we had, that she had expected me to propose that night, and I missed the opportunity. Some years later I heard from a mutual friend that she was dating a woman, and very much in love and also supposedly happy. So perhaps I hadn’t known as much about the relationship, or myself, as I had thought.
After that, I was living alone in this studio in Adams Morgan and recovering from the sudden evaporation of one potential path in life, the one I could have had with her. I was working at a nonprofit focused on climate issues, doing good work, as every young person who moves to D.C. wishes to do, or thinks they have come to do, and eventually convinces themselves that they are doing. In fact, it was unclear whether I was doing good work. The job consisted of taking people’s donations and then giving the money to renewable energy and reforestation projects, only the sales pitch was that the projects were going to “offset” a particular amount of carbon dioxide, and we were promising that their donation was in practice a paid indulgence for their climate sins. These “carbon offset” organizations are having a resurgence now that more and more people are feeling more and more guilty about their carbon footprint, so perhaps I should have stayed in the business. Another path not lived.
It was during this time of working on offsetting carbon and living alone in a studio that I started drinking every night. A glass of whiskey as I recall, because as I said many of my opinions were still forming back then, and a glass of whiskey is what I presumed adult men such as myself drank in the evening when they were on their own and about to settle into their reading chair for a night with a book. Back then I did as many do at restaurants when they order the second least expensive bottle of wine, so as not to seem cheap, except that I was searching for the second least expensive bottle of whiskey. Jim Beam is very good at owning that space. Now, as I’ve matured some in my purchasing, I simply buy the cheapest.
Some other nights, for example weekend nights, I went out with work colleagues and drank much more. I began sleeping with one of my work colleagues, but only when we got drunk enough, which was once a month or so. I was trying to sleep with most of the attractive girls I saw on a regular basis. I’m not going to say it was because I was trying to get over the aforementioned tragic relationship, although one might look at it from the outside and say that. More likely the truer explanation is that I was 26 and had very little by way of commitments.
This was all before the recent onslaught of social media and algorithmically driven feeds at an arm’s reach on our phones, and thus it was before the technologists had all but perfected their domination of our attention spans during all down moments, which is another way of saying it was before the technologists had figured out how to steal the one thing that is most precious to all of us: our time. It’s what I chose to do with that time in this period of aloneness that began to define me, as it does for all of us. I was, in a sense, my authentic self in that studio apartment. I was what I chose to do when alone for long stretches at a time, not just alone in space, but alone with my thoughts.
There is not much to say about my self-discovery in those six months - I wasn’t interested in doing too much self-discovery back then. I contemplated some business ideas, all of which went nowhere, and I was continually astonished that each month more than a thousand extra dollars in earnings went into my bank account for which I had absolutely no use. The apartment as I remember cost me $1,250 each month and I was sharing internet with a neighbor who had graciously named his wifi network “call - and then his phone number - to share.”
One thing about that time is that I didn’t realize that having a drink every night was a habit I was forming, but formed it was, and continues more or less unabated to today (my periodic alcohol fasts over the intervening years have never had any noticeable impact on my sleep, health, or any other aspect of my life which I regard as important). That is the thing about our youth. We don’t think too hard about what may come next. In those times it was perhaps the last time that it could be said that a generation had a path laid out for it. For mine, it was privilege and comfort, a world generally at peace and an economy that generally worked. Now, I’m not sure what the generations are supposed to think. There really is no path. The technologists have made sure of that.
During that time I also read a lot, mostly big philosophical works (I re-read Brothers Karamazov just to make extra sure I didn’t want to be religious) as well as some books on business. I also discovered Tim Ferris and his 4-Hour Work Week during that time, and thus began a process realizing that certain conventions embedded in the modern workplace are patently ridiculous. And of course I occasionally watched movies and some TV shows - it was the time when The Wire became popular. For a few weeks I decided to take up watercolor. It was a suggestion from my grandmother, as many things in my life have been, and so in addition to reading in the lazy boy I also sat some afternoons with a canvas and paints and looked out the window and brushed onto the canvas the three- and four-story apartment buildings across the street. They weren’t good paintings though, and I didn’t stick with it long enough to become a better painter, and I thought it best to not switch to acrylics or sketching or anything like that, lest I fail in two mediums in such close succession.
Left on my own, I always start trying new things, like the watercolor. I stick with some of them but give up many others, which must appear flighty to some, but in the end I always manage to follow through on one thing or another, and perhaps I have more self-knowledge than most for all those failures and aborted attempts and past lives lived.
That part of my self that is interested in learning and above all in new experiences has remained no matter where I am, or with whom I’m living, so you might say it is doubly “authentic” (authentic in the sense that social media influencers write it in posts, usually with quotation marks to denote that they are self-aware, as if they are commenting on the game when really they are still playing the game).
All of which is to simply to say: authentic life, whatever we suppose that to be, is likely bullshit, because we are never alone with our thoughts for months on end any more. Today I would have to go spend six months on a deserted island (preferably one without access to wifi or a device with a Netflix series on it downloaded for offline viewing) or book passage across the Pacific on a Chinese container ship, and perhaps then, with sufficient introspection, I might begin to approach something like an authentic self.
But as such, the word authentic no longer has any meaning per se, and since the conditions in which it can arise are no longer available to us in the modern world, perhaps we ought to discard the term all together, relegated to the dustbin of cultural constructions we no longer have use for, or which no longer apply in any meaningful sense. Today, we are largely who we surround ourselves with, or more accurately who we have found ourselves surrounded by. We are that, and our genes.
The authentic self is not truly here in my writing, either - I show many things, but I assure you, you still do not know me from having read my writing in your email inbox. I know this because my writing here has an audience, and anything with an audience is not, in the final analysis, truly authentic. You might say, “oh, but art reveals truth!” and that is a true statement in a sense, but you could hardly say that the art itself is anything other than something contrived to elicit a reaction or tell a story or make a point. So it is with any published material, just as it is with an Instagram post, or a Tweet, or a TikTok, as the kids today would do (but the kids would probably say, “Duh, I’m not trying to be authentic; everyone knows it’s a show, obviously it’s not the real me.”)
In any case, I will continue to write online, but also in a notebook, as I used to before the time when we all took our Mac laptops everywhere. There is a picture of me in India from years ago at a temple in Delhi. I am sitting, one leg crossed over another, writing in a notebook:
The notebook is now sitting in a trunk in a storage unit in Santa Fe, which I haven’t seen in years. I don’t know what I wrote that day, but whatever it is, I came to it honestly.
So I must find a notebook. Only a leather-bound Moleskin will do, or at least a cheaper Moleskin knockoff. It wouldn’t do at all to just write on a yellow notepad, no that wouldn’t do at all. That’s not how I see myself. No, I will get a Moleskin, and then grab whatever pen I can find (I’m not particular on my pens at least), and I will start to write authentically. At least then I can write something purely for myself, and not for an audience, and if necessary I will burn the pages in a fire before a significant other or a family member can get their hands on it and actually discover what I really, truly, authentically think.
Russell, I read all of your posts with great interest because they're thought provoking and also because I'm your Dad and am interested in knowing what's on your mind. This is the first one I've responded to from within your blog because I think some additional things need to be said. If you are saying that the only way to find your authentic self is to be alone, I think that's not correct. Humans are social animals. We need people to relate to, and those that are close to us help sculpt us as people. If we're with the right people, they bring out the best in us. Being with the wrong person can bring out the worst in us just as being alone for an extended period can bring on dark thoughts but those dark thoughts are just as much a part of our authentic self as the cheerful and kind thoughts you have when you're with someone you love. And, our "authentic self" changes over time as we gain life experience and allow those who we live with to imprint themselves on us.
What is your "authentic self" may actually be the wrong question to ask because it is not very precise. The right question I think is "what is true." And, sometimes it's better for those that know you best to tell you what's true about you. I say that you are kind, you are patient, you are an outstanding teacher, you love your family, you are loyal and expect loyalty, you are disciplined, you are smart, you are discerning about the media that you expose yourself to, you are fearless about trying new things, you like to learn, you take pride in your accomplishments and the accomplishments of those you are close to. You are a champion of those you love. To sum up, and this is quite subjective on my part, you are "a good man."