The Price of Authenticity
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Recently I had a bit of an awkward exchange on Facebook Messenger that reminded me why I seldom hang out on social media platforms with my personal account. I didn't initiate the conversation, but as usual, I sure finished it.
An old friend had opened a chat to comment on an ex-boyfriend of mine who had set up a Go Fund Me account. This ex was apparently dying of cancer, and word had spread throughout my entire network that he needed money for his expenses. The friend who reached out to me commented that the situation was 'sad' but that he wanted no part of it. He also explained that he had already contacted my ex-husband - the one who attempted to burn my life to the ground eighteen months ago and very nearly succeeded - on an unrelated matter, and had told him the same thing. Did I really need to know any of this gossip? I hadn't heard from the friend in more than a year, or the ex in four; my ex-husband, who only knew both parties through me, had recently exhorted me to 'get over my resentment' and make a donation to the cancer fund, even though he hates me, and it's none of his business. If this sounds ridiculous, complicated, or even incestuous, you probably have not spent enough time in a twelve-step recovery fellowship.
Unfortunately, the chat turned to hints, allegations, and things best left unsaid. You know, vaccinations, passports, mandates, and stuff like that.
For all the years I had known him, and long before it was fashionable, my friend had been an extreme left-wing 'woke progressive', and I had admired his advocacy even when I (silently) disagreed with it. It also didn't hurt that I fell into several groups that might protect me from cancel culture ire: I'm black, I'm female, I was a sex trade worker, and have always had friends of every age, race, sexual orientation, gender, ability and religion across the board. At one point over the years I briefly wrote for his indie magazine; at another, I worked the door at his psychic brunches, which brought together tarot readers and professional psychics once a month. I had connected him with my ex-husband long ago, and they co-produced a song to benefit cancer research. Ontario's then-Premier Rob Ford sang the chorus.
Over time, I have come to adopt some views and attitudes which are diametrically opposed to his; he doesn't know this, because we're not close, but I know it, and why he has the power to irritate me so fast.
My friend is a good and loving person, yet I always struggled with one aspect of our relationship: I'm a ruthless truth-teller, and I fear that he still isn't. He is too cautious, too protective of others' feelings, to say what he really thinks or to stand where he really stands, unless he is absolutely sure he's punching up. I used to be this way, too; in fact, his experience of me is probably one of white lies and denial. I was the type of person to laugh at jokes I didn't find funny, stroke egos while silently cringing, and pretend to be ill when I just didn't want to come in to work. In short, dishonesty in one form or another characterized my life, and I justified it because I told myself it was kind.
I don't do that anymore. And maybe the pendulum has swung too far, because when my friend started talking about fearing he might inadvertently threaten the health of his frail, saintly mother, who he was about to visit after months of lockdown, I responded that since she so badly wanted to see him, his mother was tough enough to have made her decision on the life/safety balance (a decision I believe we are taking away from elders without consulting them first). For good measure, I added that I knew for sure she was tough, because I remembered him telling me she had been extremely hard on him growing up.
Bringing up someone's past to give your unsolicited perspective on how they should see their situation is never a good idea. In fact, it can be a conversation killer, like telling a Yo Mama joke as an adult. My friend promptly replied that his mother had done her best and that blaming others is hardly empowering. This left me wondering...is it disempowering to be authentic? To tell the truth as you see it, especially when so many others seem incapable of doing it?
I think the answer depends on the situation. It's not up to me to tell someone else to admit to their childhood trauma, even if it's currently affecting their life, or to force someone to subscribe to my world view. What I had really done was respond to a trigger - the divisive COVID hysteria that has gripped Canada with an iron fist for two years - with annoyance, and because I had never been able to be honest with this particular friend, and felt invaded by his little chat head, it was all pent up.
Being too hard on, or too forceful with, others is a big one for people who have a harsh inner and outer critic they're trying to heal from. We have suppressed our true feelings and thoughts for so long, finally making a courageous decision to be honest with ourselves, only to find that opposing views can now feel like an existential threat to hard-won knowledge. That's what happened with me; I had experienced so much shame for even having resentments towards my parents, and for refusing to arrive at the conclusion that 'they did their best' despite being told this repeatedly by everyone in sight. I've finally accepted that it's okay to hold the unpopular, minority view, but sometimes I absolutely itch to tell people they're still in denial, like I was.
I don't think there is malice behind this impulse. I genuinely wish my friend, and many others, would exchange the cold comfort of being 'nice' for a fearless confrontation of past pain so they can face their own current demons more successfully. Of course, even though my life has become about truth-seeking to heal, I still have my own demons, my own stuck places that I would not necessarily appreciate someone trying to pry open. And intellectually, I understand that my situation isn't the same as everyone else's; maybe his mother has changed, made amends, or built a new relationship with him, whereas that hasn't happened in my own life. Yet, I still reacted to his perceived hypocrisy like a snarky tween.
So, is authenticity a bad thing? Never. It should be fundamental to our lives...the operative word being 'our'. Telling other people what to do, think or feel in the name of authenticity just doesn't work - at the very least, it comes with a price. The only person I need to be authentic with is the one in the mirror. An old friend just taught me that.