In a recent group conversation of which I was a part, a young mother of a 7-year-old son spoke eloquently and passionately about the importance of role models for her son. With gratitude and admiration she referred to a national figure who not long ago had made a public apology.
While some others in the group described the apology as “public theater,” implying that it was mere grandstanding, she held her ground. For this young mother, having adults publicly embody ways of being she hopes her son will develop is important.
Our inborn qualities, our training, our responses to life’s experiences and the results of our self-reflection can all contribute to how we present ourselves, to our public persona. But when we live out of our core, our authentic self will guide us not just to life, but to the fullness and richness of life. Who we are at our deepest level will lead us to honest, healthy and fulfilling ways to engage with one another within our social structures and our physical environment. And while all this may be innate, it is not invulnerable. Our most basic self can be disregarded and even overridden.
The varying contexts in which we pass our days can affect whether we act out of this truest self or give in to outside influences. Our life experiences can turn us in directions we might not otherwise go. Our behavior will not eradicate who we are at those deepest levels. It can distance us from it, though. Because our genuine selves are subject to outside pressures, spending time among folks who have learned to live authentic lives can show us how to do the same. Models like these can help mitigate some of life’s negative influences.
There are many ways, places and times that we might encounter models like these. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to have family and friends who are persons of conscience. In their presence we can find strength for being authentic. Some public figures have the combination of integrity and authenticity that can inspire us. And then there are the authors of great literature and the characters they create, not to mention figures we may meet in the electronic commons.
You might expect at this point in a “religious column” that I would tout the benefits of a religious community and steer all persons hungry for the authentic life toward one. Sadly, as in all the contexts within which we live, even here discernment is required. We all know that religion can take the spiritual impulse and encrust it with dogma to which one must give unexamined assent. Religion can impose rules that if followed do not ring true to the deepest self. And perhaps worst of all, religion can inculcate the most indifferent, insensitive, judgmental, and, at times, cruel ways of being that few of us would want for our children.
But, as in the secular world, there are those persons in the religious world to whom we can turn to see what the authentic life looks like. There are historical figures. There are living persons. And there are stories about characters, who whether they were factually real or not, can serve as models. And there are guiding ideals given to us in words we can make our own, words like: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8.
Not every encounter in the secular world will drag us farther from our deepest selves. Not every encounter in a church, synagogue or mosque will support us in living the authentic life. But, as part of their raison d’être, religious communities exist to help their participants be better persons. Houses of worship are, or should be, schools for learning about shedding the protective layers that we all have from the hurts and fears and pains of life. They are places where, at our best, we who frequent them are compassionate and forgiving toward one another as we each do this work of coming to authenticity.
Religion isn’t just about what or who we believe in. It is about how and who we are. While discernment is required, churches and other religious groups can be places where we find models for how to shed our encrustations. They can be models for living the authentic life. Here we can expect to find companions for life’s journey lived well.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.