Earlier this week I had a discussion with a friend from Vietnam about the customs of obedience to authority and the sense that expressing contrary opinions or feelings is deleterious to community or family cohesiveness. Then, later, I read a piece on the value that modern Westerners, particularly Americans, place upon individuality and authenticity when interacting with authority and posed the question of which is better, the Asian way of thinking about personal response to community and authority or the Western one?
For me it is not a question of choosing to be authentic or choosing to acquiesce to authority. It is a question of a) being fully at peace with who I am and where I stand regardless of the views of those whose approval or lack thereof may be perceived as “important” and b) being fully aware not only of my own thoughts on any given subject but also fully aware of the timeliness, effectiveness, or lack thereof of my expressing those in any given situation.
Why? Because the measure of authenticity is not verbal expression nor how one is perceived by others. My authenticity is my personal commitment to being a person who knows her own ideas and lives and speaks according to them. And one of those ideas is my personal commitment to building light and understanding in the most effective ways I can conceive. Which idea plays wisely into my words and daily life.
I never express support for ideas that I think are wrong or which I feel are misguided. That kind of “support for authority” would be contrary to my own integrity. And I reject the notion that I must meet certain unwritten expectations order to be a “good mormon”.
As a parent, I also understand that there are teaching/communication moments and there are moments when it is wise to wait a bit for a more mutually helpful time for communication and receptivity. Waiting for a better time, choosing to be quiet now and genuinely kindly vocal in a different setting the next day, is not inauthenticity. Choosing to do that is authentic to both my values of being true to myself and my value of creating understanding rather than fear or confusion.
I have Asian friends in Asia who talk about the damage to relationships that comes from acting entirely as acquiescent supporters. As an American I see the damage to relationships that comes from speaking and acting exclusively as “authentic” without regard to the receptivity or preparedness of coworkers or other members of a congregation.
I believe that it is extremely important to be authentic but that to do so only focused on your own authenticity is inconsiderate of others and hinders communication. I believe that taking into consideration the state of mind and heart of those you are with is important and that choosing to be silent about your own thoughts out of consideration for another’s level of receptivity at that particular moment is not inauthenticity, but is rather an authentic expression of an authentic commitment to the value of respecting the state of mind and receptivity of another.
My experience is that people can feel trapped and alienated from others when they feel like they must always “tow the line” of an organization or that they must act in accordance with a preconceived notion of what is acceptable. And it is also my experience that practicing “authenticity” (always saying exactly and doing exactly what you think in every situation regardless of the sensibilities of those around you) can destroy trust and seriously diminish a person’s ability to effectuate good change and can also seriously hinder others’ efforts effectively express their own authentic selves.
Neither the western nor the eastern modus operandi works well when it becomes the ultimate measurement of successful interaction. I believe that a wise blending of both, guided by consideration for the readiness of others, a gentle and confident self-acceptance of your own beliefs, and the Spirit of Truth is needed in order to both free yourself and also to free others to create true community, one that is both mutually supportive and individually authentic, together.