Living In the World vs. Being Lived By the World: Martin Heidegger On Being an Authentic Self

It seems like a preposterous thought. How could I be anyone other than me? Of course, you can’t. But that isn’t exactly the point Heidegger is making in his hefty work, Being & Time. Heidegger asks us, ‘how much of you, is really you?’ And to what extent, following Krishnamurti, are we ‘second-hand people’, copying, mimicking, and absorbing the opinions and beliefs of others?

Heidegger likely saw many things in his time that we see in ours: people following the trends, wearing whatever clothes are in fashion, watching the top rated films, and expressing the popular opinion on topics of religion, politics and law; people relinquishing their childish qualities because they must be more ‘mature’, ceasing creating art and getting themselves a ‘real’ job, and denying their sexuality in order to conform to what society deems ‘acceptable’.

Ignoring the violence done to self-esteem, the problem in living this way, according to Heidegger, is we are not being true to ourselves. The unfortunate reality is that all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are not completely true to who we are, and the task of our journey through time is to work on being the most authentic versions of ourselves we can be.

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Our culture has a story that there is such a thing as one right way to live. It is often implicit, not explicit; not said loud enough to attract attention but whispered to you by your parents, advertisers, peers and politicians. Our desires, wishes, and beliefs, therefore, are brought into line with our culture’s expectations.

In turn, we adopt a way of being in the world that in large measure is determined by what they want. They want you to dress, talk, act, and live in a certain way. They want you to work a 9-5 job, pay your taxes, buy a house and retire at 60; wear a suit if you are a man, a dress if you are a woman; purchase commodities and be a good citizen. When we conform to what they want, we experience a certain ‘tranquillity’ for obeying the dictates of culture. We are told we are doing the right thing as the culture gives us an approving pat on the back. But this tranquillity is really tranquilising because you are putting yourself to sleep and becoming an expression of them, not of you.

It is reminiscent of the surgeon I discuss in the transformation from ‘individualism to blessedness’ in Australia Inc. The surgeon lives in the penthouse of a luxurious building in an exclusive suburb. He plays squash with ‘important’ people, attends the ‘best’ restaurants, and wears ‘proper’ clothes. On his bed is the finest linen, on his body the finest silks, on his tongue, talk of the finest wines. Assured of safety, security, liberty and freedom, he contents himself with the pursuit of personal gratification. Yet, the surgeon is a superficial man. He has rank, title, power and prestige. These, the surgeon thinks, makes him who he is. He has never questioned whether wealth and power is the right path or what would make him truly, deeply happy. He has not asked whether his title and rank are statements about him, or whether they are arbitrary signs and values society has accorded to him. In short, he has not asked what makes him, him. Thomas Mann sets this out perfectly in his novel The Magic Mountain,

An individual is one who takes upon himself an understanding of what is moral and who monitors his own conduct. A man who depends upon blessedness is one who relies upon God and his representatives to define morality and enforce it. He is a child of God – a ward who would not dream of claiming personal responsibility.

The difference between being an ‘individual’ and being ‘blessed’ is a reflection of the difference between I and they. The surgeon allows society to decide how he should live. Failing to think it through himself because it is too hard, or just so easy not to, he is an expression of them, but so little of what he does is an expression of him.

Being authentic does not mean doing something nobody else does or actively doing the opposite of what society says you should do. You may very well wish to be a police officer and obey the road rules, two common enough occurrences in society. But being authentic means you are a police officer not for rank or prestige, but of an inner desire, perhaps, to serve the community; and you obey the road rules because you see the value in driving safely, and not because you mindlessly do what you are told. Being authentic does not mean being utterly unique, it means being original, in the deeper sense that what you feel and what you want springs forth from yourself.

One of the greatest barriers to becoming authentic is the belief that we already think we are, engaging in all forms of intellectual gymnastics to hide from ourselves how alienated we have become. You might say ‘I really do like Nikes, I think they are cool’. But, it was they who put the idea in your head that there can even be such a thing as ‘cool shoes’. Alternatively, you might say ‘I believe there is nothing wrong with eating meat’. Have you investigated this for yourself? Or have you listened to every peer, parent, politician and advertiser who told you that? Your belief may be genuine, but that does not make it authentic. We try to justify decisions that have really been made for us, not by us in order to rescue a sense of agency and self-determination.

Consider a man who, not knowing what he wanted to do when finishing school, followed his parents’ advice and became an electrician. He never wanted to be one, however, the pay is good, the work is secure, and his colleagues are kind. He feels like something is wrong, that he is not living according to who he truly is, and instead, living out a life somebody else planned for him. All the outward signs (prestige, wealth, power) indicate that he is living correctly and on the right path. This, Heidegger notes, is where our ‘descent into groundlessness’ is interpreted (wrongly) as an ‘ascent’ into living correctly and ‘concretely’.

The friction between what I want and what they want manifests itself ‘with primordial, elemental concreteness, in anxiety’, the anxiety this man feels every day when he goes to work. Anxiety reflects deep down, things are not settled and that outward success is no compensation for inner poverty. Anxiety appears when we imagine the possibility of what life could be against the actuality of what it is now. In that space, a negative void reminds you that you are not living how you want to live. Anxiety is, in a way, a sign of your own authenticity, of the part of you that says ‘this is not what I want at all’. To ignore anxiety is to silence part of who you are and therefore, to further tranquilise yourself and continue living for them instead of you.

Being authentic requires us to ask a question we may have never considered, or once gave up on because the search for answers was too difficult. We must ask: Who Am I in its deepest and most profoundly existential dimension. What do you want to do with your time? What brings you satisfaction? What do you want from the world? What do you want to give to it? These questions are difficult and for many of us, simply unanswerable, because for so long we have allowed them to decide, we have no idea about what we actually want. The agony and anxiety caused by these questions are an indication, not of a problem, but that for the first time, you are trying to find a solution.

If we can approach the question of ‘who am I’, and its counterpart ’who do I want to be’ with the patience, empathy, and critical attention they deserve, we may come across entirely novel and different answers to questions we thought we had answered long ago, and in the process, begin the arduous and never ending journey of becoming more authentic versions of ourselves.

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