My appointment in the morning took longer than I expected. As I left the building, I quickly checked my email and found an urgent message I had missed, so I sat and typed a response from my phone before I cranked up the car to meet my friend for coffee across town, but as I hit “send” on the phone my screen lit up with a call from Mom, who was asking about my plans for this weekend, so I talked to her as I pulled onto the highway, steering one-handed. I missed my exit, but I couldn’t use the GPS on my phone because I was still having a conversation with Mom, so I distractedly worked my way back to a familiar road while agreeing to bring chicken salad and a Bundt cake to family dinner on Sunday. Mom hung up just as I pulled into the coffee shop seventeen minutes late. I yanked the keys out of the ignition and fell through the front door of the shop, blurting to my friend, “So sorry I’m late – you wouldn’t be-lieve the day I’ve had!” She just looked up at me and smiled sadly, a half-empty cup of coffee in her hand.
This is life. We make poor decisions, face circumstances beyond our control, and occasionally abuse friends. Days like this one splotch across the weeks and years like unwanted freckles on the skin: annoying but real. That is what is often so difficult for us to grapple with – the reality and inescapability of our failures. It’s hard to admit that mistakes are an inevitable part of even the best life. In recent years, our culture has learned to accept and even celebrate life with all its flaws: “Authenticity” is celebrated in ads for beauty products and fashion, and just this morning I read an article explaining that coming to terms with failure is an important part of the growth process for children. It’s good to recognize that everyone has personal flaws, and an attitude of authenticity can bring us together and lead to deeper relationships as we realize there’s no need to pretend we’re perfect.
When I arrived at the coffee shop frazzled and late, however, I unwittingly used that moment of authenticity to bruise a relationship rather than build one. My friend had cleared her calendar to meet me and was left wondering if I had forgotten to clear mine. If she were a new friend, she might have even sat there questioning the value I placed our relationship: “I thought we were becoming closer friends since she asked me out for coffee, but I should have known I’m just another obligation to her.” When I swept breathlessly through the door exclaiming what a busy day I’d had, I confirmed her thoughts. Subtly and unknowingly, my careless behavior sent the clear message to my friend: I am more important than you. Meanwhile, I didn’t notice how badly I hurt her because I was just being me, acting from my gut and not thinking twice about the damage I might have done. After all, I was being authentic with her – not relying on a façade to hide my mistakes – and who can argue with that?
The Dark Side of Authenticity
Authenticity can become selfish when it focuses on expressing our individuality at the expense of others, such as when we expect friends to overlook our destructive behavior patterns because “that’s just who I am.” This brand of “authenticity” is actually just a habit of unapologetic carelessness that usually has a negative impact on others as well as ourselves. It can manifest itself in a number of ways: borrowing things (or money) and never returning them, asking others to make sacrifices when we forgot to prepare for an event (again), constantly complaining, over-booking our schedule, arguing and then leaving our friends to wonder if we’ve forgiven them, and generally being unpredictable and unreliable in how we treat others.
It’s true that some personalities lend themselves more to this habitual carelessness than others, which is why this darker version of “authenticity” is often excused as an indelible personality quirk. But even orderly, careful people like me can harm a friend with an outburst of unguarded words during a stressful moment. If careless selfishness is a personality quirk, it’s one we all have in some measure. None of us should justify patterns of carelessness in our lives once we’ve recognized them.
Justifying carelessness in our lives not only harms other people, but also affects how we relate to ourselves and God. When we justify a certain negative behavior by saying that’s “who we are,” we allow our actions to define our identity, a dangerous reversal of a healthy identity in which our actions flow from a stable understanding of who we are and who we aspire to be. In addition, as Christians, building an identity on our own behavior is a practical denial of the gospel that says it’s the actions of Jesus Christ – not our own – that define our lives: He is the one who went to the cross, rose from the dead, and paved the way of life so we aren’t crushed by our inevitable mistakes.
The Bright Side of Authenticity
Despite our best efforts to guard against selfish patterns, we all fall short and show up late for a coffee date sometimes. So what do we do when that happens? The real issue is how we handle these moments of failure – do we thoughtlessly use others, or do we take a deep breath, accept responsibility, and ask for forgiveness in a way that opens the door for the other person to safely express their failures as well, creating an environment of love and trust? That is authenticity at its best. The goal of being authentic and vulnerable with friends is not to outdo one another in sharing breathless accounts of what went wrong this week and whose fault it was; instead, it’s to create a safe haven where we’re genuinely interested in helping one another find the root of our problems and solving them by bringing our lives back into alignment with Christ’s example of love and humility.
If Jesus has transformed our hearts, we will have the humility to expose our failures to others in a way that invites relationships. At the same time, we should be careful not to allow destructive behavior to influence our idea of self, knowing that Jesus called us out of darkness into a new way of life. Let’s take a look at our lives: Is our pride in being “real” and “open” just a convenient cover for selfish behavior? Or do we miss the opportunity for deep relationships because we are afraid to open up to others at all? In either case, we’re not getting authenticity right. Failure and flaws are a normal part of the human experience and as such, they’re a special gift for bringing us together. Every day we get the chance to use or abuse that gift – which will it be today? For the sake of ourselves and others, it’s important to do this right.