Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

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