A Hunger for Authenticity
Our headspace is messier than we pretend, they say, and the search for authenticity is doomed if it’s aimed at tidying up the sense of self, restricting our identities to what we want to be or who we think we should be.
Earlier this week we had the privilege of meeting with a men’s cancer support group. Nine men living with cancers of the prostate, throat, pancreas, colon and bladder. Some for years. Some for only a few months. But each on a journey they never wanted or requested.
We were amazed at how free these men were in sharing their stories, at how comfortable they were at being open about what they have experienced and felt. Stories of incontinence, impotence, depression, fear, loneliness, and doubt were shared freely. But so were stories of humor, faith, gratitude, courage, love and of supportive community. They talked about what they have learned and how they grew since their diagnoses – in sensitivity, patience, gratitude, embracing life more fully, grace toward themselves, grace for others, and trust.
At one point during the meeting we asked the question –
What is one thing that you have never shared with anyone else about your journey with cancer?
Only one man responded to that question, the newest member of the group. He shared something very personal. But the eight others did not respond to it. It would have been easy to assume that they were closing up, that they were holding back, and maybe some were. Yet, we didn’t get that sense. It didn’t seem as if they weren’t being truthful or open or authentic. Instead, we realized that the rest of them had already been together long enough and were trusting each other enough that they had already shared so many of their most intimate thoughts and feelings about the cancer that had invaded their lives.
We left impressed and heartened, and continue to be as we reflect on that night. These were men who were living an authentic life, sharing their pains and sorrows, not covering up their messiness, their illness, their defenselessness. They were more at peace than we imagined they would be. They were brothers together in a community of support, a community that allowed them to share in safety, with honesty and with grace.
Often, it takes a life-threatening or life-altering event, like cancer for example, to cause us to think about and assess the value and meaning of our lives. Often, it takes these events to force us to face ourselves and to ask whether we are living authentically or not.
For these men, they were in a safe environment in which they didn’t have to tidy up the unsavory aspects of their lives – their cancer, their vulnerability in it, the ugliness of the disease, the fear of potential outcomes, the fact that some of them felt less than whole because of it. They were free to own their stories and their “new normal” lives.
A hunger for authenticity guides us in every age and aspect of life. It drives our explorations of work, relationships, play, and prayer.
Why does it so often take a threat to our well-being, our vitality, our very existence, for us to examine our lives and seek to satisfy that hunger for our authentic selves? It is a hunger that we all have, a hunger to know and be known, to have others whom we trust to journey with us. Others who know our tidy selves and our untidy selves. Others who know us not just as the people we want to be or the people we think we should be, but as the people whom we really are.
It is in being known for what is good about us and what is not, for what is beautiful and for what is not, and understanding, still, that we are loved anyway. That frees us in the end to begin to become more and more of who we want to be. It helps to propel us to follow our better instincts, to honor that love and support. To satisfy our hunger for authenticity.