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Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Authentic Quest: Plato Revisited

A pre-ordained path?
Is there such a thing as the “genuine you”?

How do you recognize an object to be a chair? Chairs come in all different shapes and sizes, and none of their features (four legs, a back, a certain height) is absolutely essential.

Plato suggested that there is a world of ideal objects to which we have a kind of unconscious access. In this world there is an “ideal chair”, and all earthly chairs bear some vague resemblance to it, sharing their “chairness”. We recognize the link, then identify the object before us as a chair.

Fun idea, but nobody believes it. We can recognize computers too, but no one thinks there is another dimension where an ideal computer has been lurking for thousands of years awaiting their invention in our world.

That is, we don’t believe it for furniture and electronics. We still find it tempting, however, to believe in the world of ideals for one thing:  ourselves.

We imagine that there is a “real” version of ourselves, a noble and true self, and that our day-to-day existence is a mere pale reflection of that self. Our “authentic self” is unfailingly kind, generous, fearless, skillful, and insightful. These aspects seem universal: we sometimes hear that all of us share in these timeless qualities. Furthermore, our true self has a firm mission in life, a purpose or quest that may be unique to us.

Our actual existence gets in the way. We get tired, cranky, anxious, confused. We say that we feel foggy, or lost. By this we mean that, as in a fog, we have lost sight of (or a sense of connection with) the true self.

When we misbehave we say “I wasn’t myself.” We loaf around, we watch television, we get bored, we are petty, we eat things we know we shouldn’t, we snap at our loved ones, and we imagine that somewhere there is another version of ourselves that doesn’t do any of these things.

With respect to our uniqueness, we long for an awareness of our life task, as though it sits undiscovered out there somewhere, perhaps buried in the back yard. We hear of the soul’s journey, and suspect that there is a trip we are supposed to take that we have forgotten about, or only dimly understand.

Wander through the self-help section of any good-sized bookshop and you will find dozens of titles aiming to reconnect you with your true self, advertising themselves in a variety of ways: “Becoming More Authentic”, “Finding Yourself”, “Your Hidden Purpose”, “The Guru Within” and so on. We take magazine quizzes to find out if we truly are a seeker, a people person, a creator, a joiner, a connector.

This is not all nonsense. There are ways of life that are more and less satisfying for all of us. Some of us see little point in the chatter of social intercourse and would make fine keepers of lighthouses. Some gain a great sense of reward from physical activity, and make poor office workers. Some want to use their minds for creative work and are dissatisfied performing manual labour.

But the belief in an invisible doppelganger who is vastly more admirable that ourselves can be an attempt to reject who we truly are. We really do get tired and impatient with our families. We really do break wind. We really do get dissatisfied when we overemphasize one aspect of our lives to the detriment of others. We really do fear things unreasonably, get preoccupied with trivia, avoid exercise, neglect our friends, and repeat foolish patterns.

In other words, perhaps that person who spent most of last evening sitting on the couch watching “American Idol” really is the authentic you. Perhaps there isn’t another one, either in this dimension or anywhere else.

The life we lead may not be satisfying. But if we are to find a better way to live, we had best know what we are looking for. If we imagine it is some magical alter-ego lurking in the ether we run the risk of wasting our lives on a wild goose chase, watching inspirational videos and feeling like failures because we can’t seem to channel this mythical entity.

Perhaps we need to throw out the Ouija Board, look ourselves squarely in the mirror, admit that we are who we are, and accept the responsibility to take the next step, rather than waiting for the universe to speak to us – or lamenting that it seems to be silent.

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