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The search for our ‘authentic’ selves leads to the dictionary, and it’s all about fulfilling your purpose


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

Although, it does raise the question: Have we forgotten what it means to be authentic to such an extent that we have to search for it in a dictionary?

I came across an interesting article this week about the Merriam-Webster dictionary having named the word “authentic” as its word of the year because the publisher had seen a rise in the number of times it had been searched online.

It’s not entirely surprising, I suppose, in our world of fake news, disinformation, internet and real-life impostors and, of course, the rise in the use of artificial intelligence to do everything for us short of actually being human.

It really is a sign of the times when people have come to question everything around them, even whether they are in fact being their “authentic selves” or living an “authentic life” because our ever-changing environment sometimes requires different iterations of ourselves and others. So, how does one hold on to their authenticity in light and in spite of it all?

Looking inwards

Some notable authors and thinkers have written on this, such as the American research professor Brené Brown.

She writes: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are… nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are strong enough.”

According to Oprah Winfrey, “your real job on Earth is to become more of who you really are, to live to the highest degree what is pure, what is honest, what is natural, what feels like the real you. Anything less is a faked life.”

Winfrey continues: “To be authentic is the highest form of praise. You’re fulfilling your mission and purpose on Earth when you honour the real you.”

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell posits: “Transparency is the idea that people’s behaviour and demeanour – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

The thread that runs through these quotes is a sense that what is on the inside is what is real and meaningful, and it should therefore be what is presented to the world for a greater sense of connectedness and, by extension, a better quality of existence.

It is to be expected, though, that a certain level of vulnerability would follow because people often want to protect and hide their true selves. This could be for many reasons, one of the most common being a fear of failure or rejection because who they really are is not seen as “enough” or “acceptable”.

However, as Winfrey rightly asserts, not living an authentic life disqualifies you from stepping into and fulfilling your life’s purpose, which could only be seen as self-defeating. Also, in a world that is leaning more and more towards the principles of self-care, authenticity can be seen as an important part of that arsenal.

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However, what piqued my curiosity about the increased interest in “authenticity” is whether we have forgotten what it means to be authentic to such an extent that we have to search for it in a dictionary, or look to others to know or understand it.

Interestingly, last year’s word was “gaslighting”, which I guess was a throw forward to people’s concerns with seeking to know the difference between what is real, imagined or manipulated. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Page 1. Front page DM168. 02 December 2023


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