Becoming More Authentic

The Positive Side of Existentialism


    Authenticity means creating our own comprehensive life-meanings
—our "Authentic projects-of-being".
When we re-center and re-integrate our lives
around our freely-chosen purposes,
we become more focused, unified, & decisive.
We gain greater autonomy
and increase our capacity to resist and transcend enculturation.
This approach to life was developed by
such existential thinkers as:
Camus, Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, & Maslow.
But only we individually can decide what content
to put within this structure of Authentic Existence.


I. From Conformity to Autonomy

The power of enculturation—providing our basic life-scripts.

Writing our own scripts—deciding what to live for.

II. Centering and Integrating
From scattered, tangled, superficial living
to organized, simple, purposeful living.
III. Authentic Projects-of-Being
Creating an Authentic Project.

My Authentic Project-of-Being.

Several Possible Projects-of-Being.

IV. Five Versions of Authentic Existence
1. Albert Camus: Rebelling Against the Absurd.

2. Jean-Paul Sartre: Inventing Meanings in a Meaningless World.

3. Martin Heidegger: Confronting Existential Guilt and Death.

4. Søren Kierkegaard: Willing One Thing.

5. Abraham Maslow: Becoming Self-Actualizing.

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Becoming More Authentic

The Positive Side of Existentialism

by James Leonard Park

   Cast into the blind, purposeless whirl of existence,
we must either choose our own lives
or have our lives chosen for us
by the social forces already in operation all around us.
There are no given, automatic meanings in human life.
We human beings must create whatever goals we will pursue.

I. From Conformity to Autonomy

    But before we can even consider inventing our own life-purposes,
we must become well-integrated, thoughtful persons.
Becoming adults persons requires years of learning and growing.
Each of us grew up in a fully-developed human culture,
replete with rules, regulations, & assumed life-meanings.

    Even if we are not pleased with the enculturation we received,
there was no way to avoid or skip that phase of human development.
We had to become integrated conformists
before we could consider becoming more autonomous.

    The process of education empowers us to look back
on the social processes that created us.
When we understand our own enculturation,
we can begin to resist and transcend that socialization.

    Autonomy means being self-governing
from the Greek for self (autos) and law (nomos).
We can become more autonomous
thru a long process of making free choices.

    As we pursue our new freely-chosen goals and purposes,
we gradually replace our original conformist selves
with new selves of our own creation.

II. Centering and Integrating

    The social forces and expectations all around us
(beginning first with our parents, then later our peers)
will shape us into persons who are centered around society's goals.
If we make no truly free choices for ourselves,
we will find that we are pursuing the assumed purposes-in-life
that surrounded us where we grew up:
money, achievement, marriage, children, pleasure, & religion.

    However, thru a process of trial and error,
we can decide how best to re-center and re-integrate our lives
this time around purposes we have freely chosen,
rather than the values and meanings we inherited from the culture.

III. Authentic Projects-of-Being

    We are what we pursue.
If we want to become more Authentic,
we will devise our own reasons for living,
which might go beyond what anyone has ever tried before.

    Our first Authentic project or task
is to explore, imagine, & experiment with various life-meanings
until we devise a set of purposes and goals
that seem worthy of our comprehensive efforts.

    For many years, my Authentic project-of-being was
helping others to become Existentially Free
which means living beyond their existential anxiety,
meaninglessness, loneliness, despair, depression, etc.
Now I define this purpose more broadly as deepening existential spirituality.

    And prior to this process of becoming more deeply persons of spirit
is the preliminary purpose of becoming more Authentic.
This essay is one example of pursuing that purpose of my life.
These words of encouragement
are intended to help readers become more Authentic.

    If you were completely free, how would you use your life?
You might decide to pursue a contemplative life,
in which you give your time to your interior development
and possibly to the spiritual development of other persons.

    At the another extreme, you might devote yourself
to a comprehensive ecological project, intended to save the Earth
or at least some part of the eco-system.

    Or you might focus your life around reforming or replacing
some social institution that should be changed:

    The possible Authentic projects-of-being that have never been tried
far exceed the purposes-for-living with which we are familiar.
Where do your talents and interests find
something that needs to be done?

   A related on-line essay expands this question:
"Your Unique Contribution to the World":

IV. Five Versions of Authentic Existence

    The concept of Authenticity has deep and strong roots
in existential philosophy and psychology.
Five thinkers will be discussed here,
each with a slightly different approach to the quest for meaning.

   1. Albert Camus: Rebelling Against the Absurd.

    The French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus (1913-1960)
describes our Existential Malaise as absurdity.
The life into which we find ourselves thrown is absurd.
But instead of giving up because life has no meaning,
we can take absurdity as a challenge to create our own meanings.
Because there are no given absolutes,
we must choose life-goals that are limited and relative,
without deceiving ourselves that our values are ultimate and absolute.
Besides rejection of the gods (denial of all given meanings),
Camus recommends in his philosophy and illustrates in his novels
a hatred of death and a passion for life.

    2. Jean-Paul Sartre:
        Inventing Meanings in a Meaningless World.

    Another French philosopher and playwright, Jean-Paul Sartre,
was a contemporary of Camus.  (Sartre lived from 1905-1980.)
Sartre describes our Existential Predicament as meaninglessness.
The people of the world are very busy doing things.
But do they realize the ultimate futility of their efforts?

    However, when we are troubled by meaninglessness,
this can stimulate us to create our own meanings
in a world devoid of ultimate meaning.
We create meaning by moving away from 'bad faith'
(trying to become identified with our roles or temperaments)
and creating our own comprehensive projects.
Then our everyday activities can be organized toward the fulfillment
of whatever we choose as our purposes in life.

    3. Martin Heidegger:
        Confronting Existential Guilt and Death.

    Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is the German existential philosopher
who gives the most systematic account of our Existential Predicament
(focusing especially on existential anxiety, guilt, & being-towards-death).
He also has the most to say about how we become more Authentic.

    We are born into the 'they',
into a fully-scripted, well-organized on-going social structure.
And we will remain absorbed in the 'they' for our whole lives
unless we discover how to become more Authentic.

    If we pay attention to our vague awareness of death,
this discovery of the deepest part of our beings
empower us to wrench ourselves free of the embrace of the 'they'.

    We can then become whole and resolute
if we harness the power of guilt and death (our Existential Malaise)
as the driving force behind our freely-chosen life-meanings.

    4. Søren Kierkegaard: Willing One Thing.

    Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
is often called the "father of existentialism". 
Kierkegaard exposed the routine ways of life

that possessed his contemporaries
(and which still shape the lives of most people).

    Instead of remaining well-adjusted conformists,
we can purify our hearts by willing one thing.
Kierkegaard describes in great detail
the process of living more Authentically.
Perhaps we will never achieve our goals
(as Kierkegaard was not recognized during his life-time).
But we are responsible for making sure
that we live each day clearly focused on one thing.

    5. Abraham Maslow: Becoming Self-Actualizing.

    Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) is an American psychologist
best known for his concept of "self-actualization".

    Instead of spending our lives trying to satisfy our deficiency needs,
we can become more self-actualizing
by creating and pursuing meaningful life-purposes.
We become self-actualizing if we pursue meanings and values
beyond ourselves and our families.
We transcend our earlier concern for what other people think
and focus instead on being the persons we choose to be.
We grow away from conformity toward autonomy.


    Becoming more Authentic is not a sudden, once-for-all change.
Rather we move from conformity toward greater autonomy
by the daily choices we make.
We might remain well-adjusted members of society,
pursuing all the conventional purposes in the approved ways.
Or we could re-create ourselves
by deciding and then consistently pursuing
whatever we regard as worthy of our deepest efforts.
In Maslow's challenge:
Are we making the safe choices or the growth choices?

 revised 6-20-2000, 4-30-2001. 6-23-2001; 3-31-2003; 5-28-2005; 10-1-2006; 9-5-2007; 5-16-2009; 11-4-2009;
5-29-2011; 5-12-2012; 5-10-2013; 8-14-2014; 8-28-2014; 1-31-2015;


<>    James Park is an existential philosopher and author of the book
which is the basis for this article:
Becoming More Authentic: The Positive Side of Existentialism .
If you click this title, the Table of Contents of the book will appear.
From there, you will be able to open several sample pages from the book.
Becoming More Authentic is now in its fifth edition, 2007.

    In 2014, this essay introducing Authentic Existence
also became a chapter in a new book on love:
Heartbreak Prevention: Loving Beyond Romance, Sex, & Marriage.
Authenticity forms the background for criticizing
many aspects of the traditional ways of loving.

    Much more about the author will be found on his home page:
An Existential Philosopher's Museum .


<>    About 20 books are reviewed in the Authenticity Bibliography,
which is divided into four sections:
Philosophy, Psychology, Literature, & Biography.


    If this article has stimulated you to think,
you might decide to pass it along to selected friends.
Or you might simply send the URL of this article:

If you would like to see a course description
for a seminar on Authenticity, go to:
Becoming More Authentic .

And an electronic discussion group
has been developed for those who cannot attend a face-to-face gathering.

Go to the EXISTENTIALISM page.

Go to other on-line essays by James Park,
organized into 10 subject-areas.

Go to the beginning of this website
James Leonard Park—Free Library