My wife and I entered the spa. The music was mellow, the colors were bright, the attendants spoke in a soft voice. We could see the city’s skyscrapers and confusion behind the window, but they felt so far removed from this perfect habitat for relaxation, that I wondered if I should not get a treatment like she would.
I looked at the prices. No, maybe not. I’ll just sit here and wait for Sarah. It’s ok. Next to me were a few magazines, I guess I’ll browse one of those. They were Oprah Magazines. Hum… They looked alike not just because Oprah is in every cover (every!), but also because the headlines in bold were also similar.
“Will the real you please stand up?”
“Who are you meant to be?”
“Own your power!”
I confess I’m not an expert in the magazines or in Oprah herself, but a consistent message seemed to arise from those covers: be authentic. Be yourself. Discover who you are. Don’t let other people define who you are. Only you can be you.
It is the gospel according to Oprah, if we could put it that way: we are saved and we are happy when we are authentic and live in in tune with who we are. From the moment we start being someone else, we’re fake and doomed. So a good dose of personal reflection, psychological visits, spa treatments and Oprah magazines is encouraged. You have to be you.
A recent article at the New York Times got at this trend too, with a lucid title: The Gospel According to Me. Philosophy professor Simon Critchley writes,
The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: be authentic! Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!
What I find most curious is the number of imperatives and exclamation points exhorting me to be myself. Well, if you stop telling me what to do, I’ll be myself just fine. Not much effort in that. But ironies aside, it is a message with resonates with us. We carry inside this sense of pampered dissatisfaction, by not having perfect lives, and of social alienation, by cultivating a sense of distance from others and the complexities of society.
But what strikes me most is how dangerous this gospel of authenticity is. I grant that being authentic and knowing ourselves is one of the most important things in life. But by focusing on our aspirations, resentments and grievances, the world-as-spa message exhorts us to be self-centered, begrudge the needs of others, focus on our personal freedom. It fosters selfish people and an individualistic society. And it fosters also unhappy people, who are reminded constantly what they are not, what they should be, and to grow bitter if there is any distance between the two.
But maybe what makes this social message dangerous is, above all, that fact that it becomes a gospel, a message of salvation. Of course being authentic is a good thing, but when it becomes the ultimate thing – what I live for, what defines my identity and value and worth – it becomes an idol, a false god who imprisons and sucks life out of us. We grow not more but less satisfied, authentic, and free. We are imprisoned by the very call that promises to set us free.
Which begs the question: if authenticity is not the ultimate thing, what is it then? What can save, free and fulfill us? What is the true gospel? These are awesome questions. These are what we should ask around.