Matt feels confused. He has a good-paying job as a technical writer in a high-tech company, but he is not sure that this is what he really wants to do. He is quite good at writing the texts for his company’s electronic instruments: booklets, manuals, maintenance instructions, reference material. But after work he often asks himself whether he is not wasting his time.
He decides to consult with an acquaintance, Linda. Linda is a philosopher. She is not exactly a friend, but he knows that with her he is welcome to come to speak about his predicaments. In a way, she is his philo-sophical mentor.
“Sometimes,” he tells her, “I feel that I am living a life that is not mine. At work I talk with the engineers, I learn how the system works, I write the text and send it back for comments. Everybody says I am doing an excellent job. But… I don’t know… In the back of mind I feel that all this high-tech business – that’s not me.”
“So why don’t you quit, Matt, and do something you really want to do?”
“In fact, sometimes I think of quitting. I feel I want to change my life, to live differently. I fantasize about becoming a journalist, or a gardener, or… who knows? But these are just fantasies. I don’t really know what I want to do.”
“No clue?”
“No,” Matt replies. “I just want to be true to myself. At work I pretend that I am enthusiastic, that I enjoy the challenges of the job. But I am only pretending. Deep inside I don’t really care. It’s not coming from my heart. Do you think I am betraying myself?”
“Betraying yourself… An interesting expression. Who is this ‘myself’ that you are betraying?”
Matt deliberates. “I don’t know. But I feel that I am not myself. I am a fake.”
“Very interesting. You are telling me that there are two Matts inside you: a true Matt and a fake Matt.” Linda waits until Matt nods in agreement, and then continues, “If so, then the question is: Who is this ‘true’ Matt?”
Matt remains silent for a while. “Yes,” he finally says. “You are right. That’s exactly the question: Which part of me is the ‘real me’? And what does this ‘real me’ want?”
As a philosopher, Linda knows that Matt is asking a familiar philosophical question: What does it mean to be true to myself, or authentic? Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, was among the first to discuss this issue.
She gives Matt a few pages from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book EMILE. “Here, take this home and read it. Contemplate on it, listen to what it says to you, and listen to how you respond to it.”
“How do I listen? How do I contemplate”
“Just relax and read it slowly, quietly. Read one or two paragraph every day. Keep them in your mind throughout the day, and let them work inside you.” Then she adds, “But first let me tell you a bit about Rousseau. It is better to contemplate on a text that you already understand.”
As a young man, Rousseau came from Switzerland to Paris. At first he was enchanted by the Parisian high society, but soon he came to regard it as a fake social game, an external mask. He observed that society makes the individual alienated from his natural, real self.
Just as a seed of a tree contains original tendencies to grow and realize its potentials, every person carries within himself the potential to grow, enjoy life, and realize himself. These original inner energies are what Rousseau calls the natural self, or what can be called the true self, or the authentic self. It is basically good. It likes simplicity and independence, it is self-sufficient, self-motivated, spontaneous, creative and productive.
But society often distorts those inner energies, especially when the young ‘tree’ is still young and tender. Society tends to have negative external influences: social pressure, power-struggles and manipulation, comparison with others (“My clothes are nicer than yours!”). Consequently, the individual may lose touch with his natural (real) self. He then starts playing games, pretending, manipulating, acting according to expectations. Soon he starts identifying with the ‘mask’. He is no longer in touch with his real self.
Rousseau’s picture is therefore dualistic: my inner nature versus external influences. To be authentic is to behave and think and feel from my natural self. To be inauthentic is to live in accordance with external influences.
Every morning Matt spends some 20 minutes contemplating a chosen paragraph from Rousseau. He first sits down in a quiet corner, calms his mind, sometimes with the help of a short meditation. Then, when he feels quieter, he contemplates the passage. He doesn’t try to analyze, only to “listen” inwardly to what the text says to him. Later, during the day, he remembers the text every once in a while and thinks about it.
Sometimes a new thought or understanding appears in Matt’s mind, like a bubble rising from the depth of a lake. New words, which are not always in Rousseau’s text, suddenly enter his thoughts. For example, the words ‘fountains of life’ appear inside him, and he starts thinking about them. He says to himself that Rousseau’s ‘natural self’ and ‘social self’ are two different fountains of life. They are two sources of feelings and thoughts and behavior. And maybe there are more such fountains in us.
Matt feels that this new idea is significant. “I now understand,” he says to himself, “that the crucial question is this: Where am I coming from? What is my root, my fountain?”
When Matt meets Linda again, she listens to these new ideas with interest. After a short conversation, she gives him a new text.
Rousseau’s approach assumes that there is such a thing as a natural self. Sartre disagrees. Trying to connect to a ‘self’ inside me is a fantasy, or self-deception.
As a human being, according to Sartre, my essence is that I don’t have an essence. In other words, there is nothing inside me that determines my personality, my values, my choices, my beliefs – except for my own free will. I am completely free to choose who I am. Even my past does not take away my freedom: If I made a decision ten minutes ago, I am still free to change it now. Even in jail I can decide what kind of a person I am. In Sartre’s words, I am condemned to be free.
In fact, it is inaccurate to say that I am free. More correctly, I am freedom; I am an openness. To quote Sartre: “I am not what I am, and I am what I am not.” Or: “Existence precedes essence” (i.e., at every moment I determine my essence, or who I am).
All this suggest that authenticity cannot mean being faithful to my inner nature. Rather, I am authentic if I am faithful to the fact that I DON’T HAVE an inner nature; if I am faithful to my openness, to my freedom.
Thus, being authentic for Sartre means that I am aware of my freedom, that I take full responsibility over my life, and don’t pretend that some fact made me the person I am. It means that I do not consider myself a victim of my psychology, of my education, of circumstances, of logical or moral consideration, of God, etc. I don’t have excuses for being the person I am.
Matt tells Linda that Sartre’s idea of radical freedom is too extreme. “Obviously I am constrained by my past experiences, by my fears, by my tendencies. My psychology determines many things about me.”
Linda suggests that what is important is not whether or not Sartre’s theory is true, but rather what it has to say to Matt. Besides, even if my psychology limits my freedom, even if my freedom is much narrower than Sartre thinks, his main point still remains: that my ‘true self’ is my freedom, not my psychological mechanisms. To be authentic is to be faithful not to something that already exists in me, but rather to my openness.
For a while they discuss this. Then Linda suggests to leave these issues open.
“Contemplation is not a matter of finding solutions or opinions,” she tells him. “It is a matter of listening to the dialogue between you and the text. Why don’t you put aside your opinions and contemplate this text?”
When Matt contemplates Sartre’s notion of “existence precedes essence,” he is astonished. A thought formulates in his mind: “I am a question, not an answer.”
Later he tries to digest his realization and put it in words. Is it possible, he thinks anxiously, that there are no answers, no meanings, no values, only a never-ending question, a meaningless emptiness? Is it possible that there is no right and wrong in my decision to quit my job or to stay?”
Historically speaking, there is nothing original about Matt’s new understanding. But originality is not the point here. The point is that this understanding speaks to him. It is meaningful in a personal way.
When Linda hears about Matt’s anxiety, she tells him that openness does not necessarily mean emptiness. In fact, existentialist philosophers generally agree that human existence is openness, but not all of them assume that this means that the world is meaningless.          
An example is the French existentialist and playwright Gabriel Marcel. Marcel distinguishes between two attitudes to life: observing and witnessing. An observer is somebody who observes life without personal commitment, without giving himself to anything. For such a person, life is a sequence of objective, impersonal facts. He may be active and hardworking, but he is not really faithful to anything. In a world made only of objective facts, there is nothing to be faithful to.
As opposed to an observer, a witness is somebody who agrees to receive life. But receiving is not a passive attitude. For example, when I receive guests in my house, I am an active, committed, creative receiver. I am creative – because there are no formulas that tell me how to receive.
In a similar way, to be a witness means to accept life as if it was a gift, and to respond to that gift in an active and personal way. It means to be faithful to a light, to a vision, to a personal mission. It means that I take upon myself a commitment to be a witness to this light through my particular way of responding to it.
Human reality is open, but it is not open to an empty and meaningless world. Life gives me light, and being faithful to myself means that I respond faithfully to life.
When Matt contemplates Marcel’s text, his anxiety is not alleviated. He realizes that he has always been, in Marcel’s terminology, an observer. He would like to be a witness, but a witness to what?
Matt cannot think of any mission to which he can give himself, no light to which he can be faithful. The observer-witness distinction has enriched his understanding of his attitude to life, but it has not shown him any way out.
In his thoughts he starts comparing Marcel and Sartre, and after a while he realizes that there must be many other ways to respond to life’s openness. These two philosophers express only two out of many possible responses. He now has a new understanding: “So far,” he says to himself, “I have been locked inside a very narrow attitude to life, without realizing it. What these texts teach me is that I shouldn’t take my attitude for granted. What I am looking for is not a new career, but a new attitude to myself, a new way of relating to life.”
Excited, Matt tells Linda about his discovery. “The readings you gave me shattered my confidence in my way of life. They shattered the old walls of my old self and opened me to new directions. Now I want to try to explore these new directions. I want to experiment with myself, to investigate other sides in me that are less familiar to me.”
“How are you going to do this, Matt?”
“I don’t know, Linda. I have no idea. I only know that it’s going to be lonely. Whether I go with Rousseau or with Sartre or with Marcel or with some other approach, my challenge is to connect to myself. That’s something I must do by myself, me alone.”
“An interesting observation,” Linda says, “but not everybody would agree with you. Matt, I’d like to give you one more text on authenticity, alright?”
Several feminist thinkers, such as the American philosopher of education Nel Noddings, hold that the traditional conceptions of authenticity are distorted: They are too individualistic, too much centered on the individual (and too ‘masculine’, according to them). They are distorted, because I cannot be a full person unless I am related to others. My relations to others are not a secondary addendum to who I am. My relations to my family, friends, or fellow human beings are an essential part of what defines me. My real self is my self-in-relationships.  
Moreover, what makes me a full person (and this can be understood to mean an authentic self) is my CARING relationships. In caring relationship I give and receive, I am open to others, I share experiences with them, and I can take part in their joys and concerns.
Interestingly, at this point these feminist ‘care ethicists’ are similar to the earlier philosopher Martin Buber (see my ‘Voices 1’). For him, too, I can be authentically myself only in I-thou relationships to others and to the world around me.
Something is happening to Matt. He feels disoriented by the multiplicity of approaches. Each of the four is eloquent, enlightening, and each makes sense in its own way. But they seem to contradict each other.
“Your disorientation is precious,” Linda says to him. “Be with it, listen to what it says. Don’t suffocate it with answers and solutions.”
“But how is this going to help me make a decision?” he asks Linda. “I came to you because I wanted to find out what I really want to do, how to be true to myself. Don’t you expect me to choose one of these four theories? Don’t you want me to decide whether my true self is my natural self, or my openness to emptiness, or my response to a light, or my relatedness to others, or perhaps something else?”
Linda smiles. “So now you are telling me that you want to choose for yourself a little cozy cave and close yourself in it.”
“But I have to choose something, don’t I?”
“Well, go ahead and choose, then.”
“I wish I could,” Matt replies sadly. “You see, when we started working on these texts I thought it would be easy. I expected to discover the best theory on authenticity; or at least the best theory for me. But now I am even more confused.”
“Don’t lose heart. What seems like an obstacle is sometimes an open door. After all, are you sure you need to choose?”
Linda’s question takes Matt by surprise. For a long time he thinks about it. “The truth is,” he finally admits, “that in my last reading I had a thought, a kind of glimmer in my mind: that there is no need to choose. That I don’t need to make a decision. That I can just look at all those approaches and let them be. Very strange, I don’t understand this completely.”
“Why don’t you go with this understanding? Let it guide you.”
“But I must make a decision, don’t I? If I don’t decide what is true for me, how can I decide whether to remain in my job or to quit and become a journalist or gardener?”
“Yes, on a practical level. On a practical level you need to decide what is true for you, because you have to work somewhere and to make money somehow. But your disorientation, and the glimmer you had in your mind, are suggesting to you that on another level you don’t need to choose. On another level it doesn’t even make sense to choose.”
Matt looks at Linda. Her words are both strange and seductive. “What other level are you talking about, Linda?”
“Call it the level of disorientation. Or, the level of awareness. The name doesn’t matter. From this perspective, these theories are not really theories. What is important about them is not what they describe, but where they come from. They are like the footprints of something, like voices that come from somewhere.”
Matt shakes his head. “When I had this glimmer, I felt hanging in the air. It was a moment of nothingness.”
“Alright, Matt, call this other level ‘the point of nothingness’. That’s the point where you don’t have any opinion, you have nothing to stand on, no cave to live in. You are just there, in awareness, a testimony.”
“But a testimony to what, Linda?”
“A testimony to the life that gave voice to these theories, a testimony to the reality that is at the source of these voices, a testimony to your confusion, and to everything.”