The Real Thing
Want to live a life that matters? Start by removing your mask and committing to a life of authenticity.
by Joan Ball
In the early 1990's, I was the poster child for the inauthentic life.
By day, I was a corporate spokesperson for a Fortune 500 company. By night, I juggled home and work while managing the demands of single motherhood. My friends and family marveled at my ability to keep so many balls in the air and applauded my capacity to “do it all.” Of course, I embraced the compliments. They allowed me to ignore the sad truth: I was leading a double life.
Teetering on the emotional edge after a very difficult marriage, I could barely keep my head above water. I was so “put together” that you would never have known it. I had the “right” haircut and the “right” wardrobe and micro-managed my family image to apparent perfection.
But what you saw on the outside wasn’t anywhere near what was happening on the inside. The kids were well behaved and well dressed—but their mother was distant and emotionally unavailable. The house was nicely decorated and appeared to be clean—but the closets were stuffed to the ceilings with clothes and toys and any room out of view of visitors was a complete disaster. In the evenings, after the kids were in bed and the public areas were straightened, I was convinced that I deserved to “unwind”—but I was medicating my despair with alcohol and marijuana.
The person on the inside of me was so out of sync with the person on the outside it was as if the two had never met. I had mastered the art of keeping up appearances.
Choosing to Unmask
From the crib to the grave, we’re taught to manage the way we appear to others. We learn early that we live in a culture that rewards people who keep their hurt and pain to themselves, hide their shortcomings, and smile—or at least remain stoic—in the face of difficulty or tragedy.
Sadly, most of us like it that way. As day-to-day living becomes increasingly hectic, we’re often relieved when a person says that their marriage, their children and their jobs are “just fine.” We meet in church, at school, in the grocery store, and at work, and exchange pleasantries.
“How are you?”
“Just fine, and you?”
Of course the truth might be that our marriage is on the rocks or our teenager is making dangerous choices or we’re struggling to take care of a sick relative, but we’ve grown so accustomed to this sort of polite dishonesty that we no longer view it as dishonest. The “little white lie” has not only become culturally acceptable, it’s expected and preferred. Yet, when we hide our brokenness behind what we perceive to be polite and appropriate conversation, it sets off a ripple effect that has a far greater impact on our relationships than we might think.
It is from our brokenness that we can best help others and in our brokenness that God can use others to minister to us. When we isolate ourselves behind a veneer of appropriateness, we’re left to face life’s most challenging circumstances without the support and love of others, preventing them from fulfilling God’s command to love us.
No wonder our society is so fascinated with self-help. We’re in constant search for the program or pill that will help us get over, get through or get past the difficulty of daily living. And, while followers of Christ have the Word and the Holy Spirit to guide us, we’re notorious for putting up the “things are fine” façade to hide our true circumstances. Even if we have an unselfish motive like not wanting to burden others with our problems, when we keep our challenges to ourselves we unintentionally block the flow of God’s love in our lives and the lives of the people we touch.
Paying lip service to authenticity is easy. Doing the work is a very different story. It requires us to take a good hard look at ourselves to identify the things we are allowing to get in our way—not the things someone else has done to us or the challenges we’ve faced along the way. This is about taking personal responsibility for our actions and making a commitment to do whatever it takes to make the change—even when it gets uncomfortable.
So, before we go any further, ask yourself one simple question: Am I ready to make an honest commitment to being real, or do I use the word “authenticity”as just another buzzword to weave into the small-talk at church, on the job or at school?
Each of us has a distinctive set of hard-wired tendencies and personal experiences that form our personality and character. And because we’re all at different stages on our spiritual paths, we each have a unique set of challenges that can deter us from living a more authentic life.
Breaking the Fear Barrier
So what does it take to fearlessly pursue the truth about ourselves? We can begin by asking ourselves what we’re afraid of. Not the obvious things, like contracting a fatal disease or a family member being in an accident; it’s our more subtle fears—of change, failure, rejection—that have a deeper hold on us.
Sometimes our fears are buried so deep inside of us that we don’t even recognize them. Maybe you recognize your fears but don’t know what to do about them. So you stuff them, run from them or allow them to run your life. Or, like the character I was playing, you’ve masked your fears with pure bravado that allows you to ignore them.
Reflect on some of these questions:
- Are you afraid of changes that might upset your routine?
- Have you reached a pinnacle in your ministry, family or community that might be at risk, were you to share more of yourself?
- Are you afraid of what others would say?
- Do you worry that they might judge you, turn their backs on you, or use the information to hurt you?
- Are you afraid of being different?
- Are you concerned about how your family would react to the real you?
- Most importantly, are you afraid of what you might find if you really took a good hard look at what’s in there?
Facing these questions and choosing to dig deep enough to answer them honestly is where pursuing authenticity can get uncomfortable—that’s why we often call it quits a few steps into the journey. This is where you have to remember your commitment—that you made a conscious, prayerful decision to pursue an authentic life.
Don’t give up because you’re afraid. When you’re tempted to quit because of fear, take it to the One whose “perfect love drives out fear.” If we come to Him with humility, He’s more than willing to give us strength to boldly confront them, even if we’re trying to tackle what we’ve spent a lifetime avoiding.
Breaking the Secrecy Barrier
Hiding a secret is like being in prison. You think your fear is justified because you know that if you let it out, it will change everything. The more serious the secret, the more closely we guard it and the more negatively it impacts the way we relate to other people. Only you know your situation. But living a life of truth demands that we own up to our mistakes, work through our personal tragedies, and face the abuses we’ve tried to bury rather than seek healing for.
Maybe you had an abortion or an affair. Maybe you were assaulted, or your spouse is abusing you. Maybe you’re abusing your children. If Jesus can forgive us for our sins, we must accept His forgiveness and go and sin no more. And if He took on all our “griefs and carried our sorrows,” we must open ourselves to His healing. Nothing you’ve done is beyond redemption, and no hurt is beyond repair.
Whatever it is, you need to take it to God, asking Him to show you the best way to release this burden. Ask Him to show you whom you can talk to about it—the barrier of secrecy has to be broken for the burden to lose its hold on you. You can’t live in the fullness of freedom if you’re keeping this to yourself. It will keep you from living an authentic life, reinforcing that invisible wall between you and others that keeps you from giving and accepting God’s love.
When we live an authentic life and model an authentic faith, people can’t help but notice something different about us. They may not mention it, but they’ll be curious. And if we keep at it, we become the sort of people that make our faith attractive rather than repelling others by preaching a faith we don't truly practice.
The spiritual communication gap between believers and those who don't share our faith often seems far too wide to cross. But when we take the courageous step to unmask—rather than pretend to be someone we're not—we become more authentic ambassadors who can point others to Jesus without our own barriers getting in the way.