Richard J. Severson
What makes a person authentic? That is a moral question that every human society has wrestled with. In the Christian tradition, to take an example that I am familiar with, we achieve authenticity when we experience the love of God. It saves us from our most destructive tendencies, realigning our other “loves” (or cares) into their proper order as St. Augustine put it. It is the kind of love that can banish fear and inspire serenity even in the face of grave danger.
On the other hand, German philosopher Martin Heidegger (who grew up Roman Catholic) claimed that anxiety—not God’s love—is the basic mood that is capable of reorientating all of our cares and concerns. In that sense, anxiety represents a call of conscience that throws us into rough contact with our own mortal condition. It is a trial by fire experience that humbles and strengthens us, and sets us on the right path going forward.
I suspect that both of these perspectives point to universal human experiences. At least once or twice, for instance, I have experienced a sense of joyful love that felt something like the grace of God shining down upon me. Likewise, I have also experienced a sense of impending doom that disrupted the very meaningfulness of my existence.
How do you get in touch with the deepest desires of your authentic self if you are adrift in a somnolent (zombie-like) state of I-couldn’t-care-less indifference to life and all its trappings? Frankly, I wonder if anxiety isn’t too awful and hopeless to serve as a call of conscience. With regard to love, I find it is too easily manipulated (distorted) by my own self-serving tendencies. How can such an experience shepherd the well-being of my soul? Even the love of God is open to human manipulation in prayerful supplications that reek of inauthenticity. Neither anxiety nor love seems to be the sure-fire gateway to the real me.
I have found that the sorrow I feel in the face of senseless suffering is an authenticating experience perhaps more common than love or anxiety. There is so much suffering in the world, and to ignore it seems like the origin of every self-deceptive turn I have ever taken. Just this morning, on my daily walk in the predawn twilight, I witnessed a driver in a white pickup run down a stately drake mallard that was resting in the street. I have no way of knowing this, but the driver seemed to harm the bird on purpose, making no effort to swerve in order to avoid it. I felt overwhelmed by sadness. As the duck expired, I placed it gently on a nearby lawn. Strangely and unexpectedly, that sadness brought me fully home to myself.