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An Authentic Life

I begin by noting that Karen Armstrong moves me with her clear thinking, her rigorous scholarship, and her fine writing. Her book, Buddha, is a fascinating examination of the mythical foundations of Buddhism. Last night I started reading The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, and in the preface she explains that she joined a Roman Catholic convent and embarked on a seven-year attempt to become a nun because she wanted to “live more authentically than seemed possible in the world I knew” (xi). That grabbed me so powerfully I had to put the book down. What is an authentic life? That question is driving my intention to quit teaching in ten months and move to a Buddhist center. It is a familiar question–it’s the question that has driven most of my life-wrecking decisions: to bear and adopt children alone, to leave lovers, to pursue college degrees, to leave Smith College, to emigrate to South Africa, to leave Africa, to explore Portugal, to start this blog. . . .

I think of Tania’s blog, Conor’s blog, my whole life, actually. When I was seventeen, I wanted to be Scaramouche. A couple of years later when I read Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, I wanted to be both: a contemplative monk and a fancy-free male adventurer who experiences sex without consequences and travels without the need for cash. Needless to say, I was vaguely aware that I lacked the basic physical equipment, not to mention class privilege, necessary to be the kind of adventurer those three were. But you get the idea. My models went on quests–inner or outer; they didn’t settle down and generate lives of domestic contentment. Times like last Thursday, when my students move me, I sway a little toward keeping the life I have. I remember how clearly I saw, in Portugal last summer, that the life I have is good-enough. But I ache for change. I can’t see how anything can be more stultifying than endlessly grading papers. So I’m still headed for that cliff-edge. Ten months and counting.

The whole point is to choose, to the extent that choosing is possible, an authentic life. An authentic life. I’m alert and sniffing the wind like a nose-hound when I hear of people who have landed, by choice or by necessity, by accident or by conscious selection, in authentic ways of life. Walter Anderson. Stephen Brody. Karen Armstrong. Pema Chodron. Georgia O’Keeffe. Andy Goldsworthy. Che Guevarra. Malcolm X. Mother Theresa. Molly Ivins. Who else? I go on sniffing, following my nose, and wagging my metaphorical tail. I imprinted on a Basset Hound early in life. Being on the trail may be the authentic life I wist for.

Maybe “authentic” living is being as we NEED to be, given the limitations of circumstance, and inauthentic living is being what we think we SHOULD be. Every life involves some compromises; I envision a sliding scale, a spectrum, and the goal is to get as far from SHOULD as possible, understanding that for many of us, NEED includes “service is our prayer.” I am reminded of M’e MaAnna in Lesotho: desperately poor by material standards, living in a “house” built of sagging and rippling masonite slabs nailed to found posts, with a corrugated roof held in place by stones and old tires. She keeps a little garden with an altar she re-creates daily from bottle caps, broken crockery, heaps of earth, stones, and whatever else she finds. She’s nearly blind and so thin she’s little more than a walking skeleton, but she tends her shrine in the hours when she isn’t foraging for food, and every morning she sings to the shrine and prays in gratitude for another day. It’s what she needs to do. People laugh at her for it. Some say she’s a witch. But she keeps on re-creating it. And then I remember what Bill T. Jones said in a workshop at Smith College in 1992: “When I’m absolutely honest with everyone I meet, then my path is clear.”

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-1 responses to “An Authentic Life”

  1. Constance says:


    I think the quest/journey/search is the most authentic way we can realize our innate potential toward growth and self-fulfillment. What we are able to become is as unlimited as the opportunities that befall us. Some are adventurous or driven enough to create opportunities rather than wait for them to magically appear (that’s me), and they are able to embark on many journeys. I also think that for some the end to any journey is a little like dying; that is why they are driven to find another and another. . . It is what keeps them alive emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and even physically.

  2. stephenbrody says:

    I’m impelled to say that you place me, not unflatteringly but surely arbitrarily, in some unexpected company! And how you do fret yourself with all this tormented wordiness and soul-searching! I can’t exactly follow what is intended by ‘authenticity’, but something like it is achieved, surely, by simply being honestly cognizant of one’s own nature, suiting oneself as far as possible, taking no notice of what anyone else thinks within the limits of good behaviour, and making the best of whatever circumstances happen to arise including those following from mistakes of the past. Vain regrets are worse than useless and grass on the other side of the fence tends to be less green on closer inspection. A lot of life is a bit of a bore, that’s inevitable, but it is possible very largely to prevent it being cheap, vulgar or misguided without twisting oneself inside out. And if it comes to that I can’t quite see, from what little I know, why you should feel dissatisfied or perplexed – an attractive woman mature enough to be wise, with a dense history of wide experience and interesting adventures to look forward to? If that pleasing phrase “a contemplative monk and fancy-free …etc” is in any way borrowed from me, and perhaps it wouldn’t be altogether innacurate if it were, all I can say is that if I can do it anyone can ….if he or she is prepared also not to want too much, to abandon the ordinary comforts and solaces and has feet that dont get cold too easily ….

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