Authenticity: An Excerpt from Rollo May’s Book On Tillich

“Remember who you are.” — Mufasa, The Lion King

While making a half-hearted attempt to get of more things from my garage this weekend I was sifting through books to discard (donate to library) when I noticed a page in Rollo May’s Paulus that I had tabbed. Paulus is May’s portrait of twentieth century existential theologian Paul Tillich. (You can read my review of Tillich’s autobiographical On The Boundary here. ) What follows is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Paulus’ Personal Presence.”

Paulus believed that every encounter with a new person is anxiety-creating. Anxiety is present in every authentic encounter, to wit, one in which people let themselves genuinely meet. This anxiety is the dread of freedom; in Kierkegaard’s words, it is the “dizziness of freedom.” You don’t know what is ahead or what demands the encounter may make upon you, or the possibilities in this new relationship. You know you must risk something in order to go through with it, but you don’t know how much. Also the pleasures, delights and joys it can give are still unknown. The meeting may jar you off your present course. It may bring a new expansion in your life or it may push you toward curtailment and psychological slavery.

The following page he continues…

The instinctive reaction is to protect oneself until the coast is clear, to hide one’s own originality, one’s impulses and native responses. The mechanics for doing this lie in the standards of courtesy, good manners, and so on, under whose aegis we conceal our authentic selves. But we do it at a price of falsifying ourselves. No matter how “necessary” such protection is, or the fact that no one could survive without such social forms, it is still very important that this protecting of oneself be done consciously. I you repress and do not know you are repressing, there is a danger of suffocation, a stultifying of the self. The problem of honesty in personal relationships is difficult indeed.

The operative word here is authentic. In the first paragraph he speaks of authentic encounters with others. In the second he speaks of our authentic selves, as opposed to false impressions and insincere self-projections. We’ve become accustomed to politicians being “crafted” to fit an image that will sell, as if he or she were a brand. This political gamesmanship has become nauseating for many voters because in an era such as ours we crave authenticity. It is because of these absurd election campaign games that a pro wrestler like Jesse Ventura got elected as governor in Minnesota, simply because he came across as “real.”

Rollo May is not talking about elections and news spin here, though. He is addressing our day-to-day encounters and how we carry our selves. Paul Tillich, he says, was strong enough to not conceal his weakness. According to May’s account he didn’t need to put on armor when he went about his business. He remained vulnerable, and sensitive. He accepted the risk of being hurt, or fulfilled.

There’s a sense in which this is our existential dilemma. If we fail to be authentic, we become isolated. This sense of alienation is not the fault of others, however. It is the result of our own lack of courage, our failure to risk self-revelation in favor of self-protection.

Authenticity is about more than just being real. It means being credible and true. But the dictum “To thine own self be true” assumes you know who you are. You can’t be true to yourself until you first know who you are. Simba in The Lion King forgot who he was and nearly missed his calling, lost as he was in the fantasy land of Hakuna Matata.

What’s your calling? Do you have ambitions that you conceal for fear of being ridiculed? Are you stuck in a place that doesn’t feel like you? Where do you really want to go? What do you really want to be? Are you tired of the games you’ve been playing?

You only live once. It may be time to shut your ears to the noise out there and tune in to the still, small voice within that is trying to remind you who you are… before it it too late.

Originally published at
Illustration at top of page: excerpt from a painting by the author.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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