From jeans to coffee roasts to new businesses to church core values, “authentic” is the new buzzword. There is an increasing trend to seek out the true, gritty and original. Maybe it’s a reaction to the hyper-consumerism many of us grew up in. Perhaps some of it traces back to a distrust of the corporate mentality, as a result of the recent recession. Is it a deep relational hunger for something other than Sunday-dress perfection that causes us to willingly expose ourselves to one another?
Whatever the reason is, authenticity is in.
As I watch the trend, I wonder how long it will last. I wonder how transparency will sustain itself. What will the result of this experimentation in realness be? Will our children carry on the torch of clarity, or will they seek refuge from intruders into their hearts?
While the discussion and desire for authenticity abounds, perhaps we have neglected something else: intimacy.
And there is a critical difference between the two. Authenticity is the ability to accurately share what is going on in our hearts, souls and minds. It is the task of giving form and vocabulary to those things that are inside of us. Intimacy, on the other hand, is the level to which we share those things. It has to do with just how far into our hearts, souls and minds we let other people see. Authenticity is about clarity, and definition. Intimacy is about depth. And in Christlike relationships, we see both.
Imagine a set of Russian stacking dolls. As you look at the patterns painted on the outside of each doll, you begin to understand their shape. This is completely authentic—the pattern you see painted is what represents this part of the doll set. However, as you open each doll, you find a new doll underneath. This new doll is painted differently. This is still authentic, yet it’s a new level of intimacy. The more dolls you open, the better understanding you gain of the set you have. When you come to the center doll, you have seen each part of the doll set. This is authenticity and intimacy working together.
The problem the trend of authenticity faces is twofold. The first is our lack of understanding of the layers involved in getting to know people. Layering is a natural way of going about protecting and honoring ourselves. However, layers are often seen as “inauthentic”—masks that hide the true self underneath. Yet under this banner of genuineness, we strip ourselves of healthy boundaries. We forget it is more authentic to say, “I don’t think I should discuss this with you,” than to share inappropriately or out of bounds.
The second problem with boundless authenticity is its lack of respect for intimacy. Since there is not a wide discussion about the need to earn intimacy or the investment that intimacy requires, the process is quickened. We demand to see the center doll without spending time learning about the exterior dolls. Unguarded, we pry into one another’s lives without having earned the right to do so. If this continues, it can lead to the creation of a culture that demands access to people’s hearts without considering the outcome.
So, are we to abandon the vision of authenticity and all it stands for? Return to lives of plastic smiles? Most certainly not. Here are three ways our culture can refine authenticity while allowing for a healthier understanding of intimacy.
1. Be a friend in real time.
Very rarely does intimacy occur on Facebook, Twitter or the other hosts of social media. If there is no face-to-face interaction in your relationships, intimacy doesn’t have space to grow. Go ahead and check in with your friends in digital space, but also take the time to be a friend in real life. Invest your true self, not your cyber self, in others.
2. Consider time and place.
Places of convenience, such as the grocery store, where you happen to run into someone, or the church lobby five minutes before service starts, are never places to have intimate conversations. If you want to know someone, invest the time to do so. If you want to get beyond the standard “How are you?” you’ll have to put in effort and time investment. Instead of being disappointed you didn’t catch up on the fly, be intentional—call up a friend and make a date.
3. Understand seasons.
Just because you and a friend shared a mountaintop experience together at a church retreat 10 years ago doesn’t mean you have a right to know their heart today. If the relationship has not been kept, then you need to begin the process of earning your way into their core confidence again. Maybe you had a great season together in the past, but you need to respect that you are both in different places now—and that you have a lot to learn about how they’ve grown since.
The trend toward authenticity in our culture today is a good thing. It illuminates our refusal to settle for what is counterfeit or misleading. But, like all trends, it risks burning itself out.
If we are as willing to go deep as we are to be transparent on the surface, perhaps we can put authenticity and intimacy to good use—and shape our relationships more in the image of Christ.