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What Caitlyn Jenner Teaches Us About Authenticity

06/03/2015 12:20 EDT | Updated 06/03/2016 05:59 EDT
Aol On/Vanity Fair

Like millions of other people, I've been following the Caitlyn Jenner story. What we've been seeing is a person who's lived her entire life with a painful secret.

She's been hiding her true nature, even from those closest to her and now, at age 65, she's finally come out to the world as the woman she is. She's saying that at last, she's free to be her authentic self.

I've been thinking a lot about authenticity these days and it seems to me that many of us are torn between the need to be genuine and the compulsion to conform to the expectations of others.

As much as we all want to be seen and loved for who we really are, it's painful to think that being true to ourselves could potentially result in our being rejected, even by those we hold most dear.

Bruce Jenner was heroic as an athlete, but Caitlyn Jenner is even more heroic. It's awfully hard to be authentic when who you are isn't likely to be accepted by mainstream society, let alone understood.

Our family, our community, our society -- all of them are constantly telling us who and how they think we should be.

Being authentic goes far beyond questions of gender or sexual orientation. What if we don't share the same religious beliefs as our family or community? What if we fear being persecuted for our observances?

What if we don't share the same values or political views as our family or community? Do we speak out and risk being ostracized?

What if it's our heart's desire to dress differently, act differently, engage in different types of behaviours than the agreed-upon norm?

Do we dare to be ourselves, and perhaps elicit the contempt of those around us? Or do we pretend to be just like everyone else, allowing a little part of our soul to die, every day we try to be someone we're not?

Artists are granted a certain amount of leeway, but what about the rest of us? What if our way of being differs from that of the majority? Do we live our truth or avoid confrontation? Do we tell it the way we see it or go along with the masses?

Our drive for authenticity always seems to be in conflict with our fear of expulsion and our desire to belong.

It's important that we be true to ourselves -- that we express our genuine feelings, needs, opinions and beliefs, and that we're seen and loved for who we really are. Still it's also extremely important to feel like we're part of a family, a community, a society.

Life can be lonely and painful, even when we're surrounded by loved ones. Imagine how hard it would be to be rejected and isolated from others because of our differences.

It's hard to be authentic. Depending on where we live in the world, we risk being criticized, rejected, ostracized, even severely punished.

Here in North America, the consequences of being true to ourselves can be a vicious trial by internet, with brutal, anonymous bullying and humiliation.

Still, not to be true to ourselves is an even worse fate: that of always hiding our true self, never truly being known, and ultimately being alienated from ourselves and from everyone else.

Being inauthentic must also be enormously frustrating if we're always having to repress our true nature for fear of rejection or reprisals.

Whether it's about our sexual orientation, our true gender, our religion or our political views; whether it's about our genuine feelings, needs and attitudes or our preferred form of self-expression, being authentic, as Caitlyn Jenner says, is freedom. Without it, can we ever be happy?

The cost of pretending in order to be part of the crowd is to always feel separate from the crowd. The more we try to conform to how others tell us we should be, the more lonely and miserable we're likely to be.

Yes, it's a risk to show the world who we really are, but the truth is, anything less is tragic.

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