Why Authenticity Doesn't Go Far Enough

In the push to be genuine, have we missed something even deeper?

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?

Authenticity is the ability to accurately share what is going on in our hearts, souls and minds. Intimacy, on the other hand, is the level to which we share those things.

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.

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.

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.

6 Comments

Miranda Heathcote

1

Miranda Heathcote commented…

This is a great article. I appreciate the distinction you are making between authenticity and intimacy. It seems to me that authenticity is a step on the road to intimacy, and certainly an indication of a desire for intimacy in our individualistic culture where hiding is easy.

Nathan Howell

4

Nathan Howell commented…

Jessica, I also appreciate that you wrote this article, and it seems to me like you have both thought deeply about and experienced the distinction between authenticity and intimacy.

I think that authenticity or genuineness is something that American culture is tending towards as you are saying though I don't know if that word is always expressly used. I think people experience the longing to be authentic and transparent though they may not be highly conscious of it. And I feel like intimacy is even less used as a word though it is also a desire. Intimacy as a word is something that I would almost never use in casual conversation with others unless I was actually seeking intimacy with them only because I'm not sure how it would be understood.

For many years in college, our church group was fixated not so much on the word authenticity but on transparency. I think that I would have benefited by understanding the need to earn ever deeper layers of intimacy with others and how proper boundaries are a part of that process. As I think about these ideas in general, what comes to mind is TIME and PRESENCE. I appreciate these so much when they are given to me by my friends, and I think that these are necessary to earn intimacy. Especially time is important because these days if you want to have time with someone, it's going to require intentionality and personal cost because time is so valuable. Giving time to know another person says a lot to me about earning intimacy because I know when someone does that with me, it is costing them something. They are valuing me by doing so.

Laura

1

Laura commented…

I also loved this article!
I think people often cling to transparency or "being real" while forgetting that you don't have to share every single detail in order to be authentic. Tact is another long forgotten virtue, thrown out in the name of honesty.
I'm all for being real, but you can say things in different ways that are less abrasive.
For example, when you meet a hardcore Huskers fan (a team you despise), you could handle it two ways. You could say, "Down with the Huskers! I root for whoever is playing against them" or you could say, "I'm not a big fan of the Huskers."
Both responses are real, but one isn't trying to pick a fight. Of course, like the article points out, the more intimacy you have with a person the more you can share. You can rib a friend about their weird beliefs or habits in a way you wouldn't with an acquaintance.

Kirsten Oliphant

5

Kirsten Oliphant commented…

What a great post! I think that people sometimes mistake the two, esp on social media, and I see a lot of oversharing or things that I don't feel people would tell me in real life, yet they're being splayed on Facebook because...I don't know why. Because people don't always distinguish intimacy and authenticity so to be authentic they spill it ALL. I like intimacy in the relationships where it makes sense, or at least, in varying degrees as fits the relationship.

aaron harris

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aaron harris commented…

Kirsten: great point about "authenticity" on social media. I think it is a reflection of people wanting to be known, but failing to pursue true community through relationships.

I enjoyed the article, it was a good read. I found the article to be ironically authentic, but lacking in intimacy. I agree that being authentic is not the punctuation to a relationship, meaning it is more like the beginning and not the end. However; I think authenticity is in itself an invitation to intimacy. You're inviting people into the real you. I agree that cultivating intimacy takes intentionality and time. I also agree that intimacy can come from authenticity, but I disagree that they are so different. Jesus was authentic and intimate, but he did not seem too worried about stepping on toes or hurting feelings. Be authentic and intimate were avenues for him to love.

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