I recently watched the movie Swiss Army Man, and it taught me a lesson about the importance of authenticity and the dangers of living an inauthentic life.
As the movie opens, Hank (played by Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and is trying to kill himself. The first time he tries to hang himself, the rope breaks, leaving him gasping for air in the sand. As he gets a new rope and tries to hang himself for the second time, he sees a dead body that has just washed ashore. Strangely, the dead body is farting a lot. (I know, it’s a weird movie, but stay with me.)
Hank brings the dead body back to the mainland, and starts talking to it. Miraculously, the dead body comes back to life and talks to Hank. The dead man is named Manny (played by Daniel Radcliffe).
Manny is a blank slate, and Hank begins to teach Manny about life. Watching Manny come alive is a bit like watching a child grow and learn, only faster. Manny expresses everything he is thinking and feeling, without censoring. It isn’t long, however, before Hank teaches Manny about the pressures of the ‘real world’ to hold back your authentic self, starting with the world’s rules about farting:
Manny: When I get back home, I’m going to show Sarah how much I care about her every single day. Whatever she wants, when she’s thirsty or whatever, she can drink my spit. And then she can ride my gas to wherever she wants to go.
Hank: You can’t use your gas in front of other people.
Manny: What? Why not?
Hank: Because it’s weird. People don’t like other people’s farts.
Manny: Is that why you don’t fart in front of me?
Hank: No, I just like to do it alone or I hold it in. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
Manny: That’s so sad. That’s so sad. What are we even going back home for? It sounds like you’re not allowed to do anything back there.
When Manny hears about what the ‘real world’ is really like, he questions their whole quest to get back there.
It isn’t just farting. When Manny blurts out an accurate observation that Hank doesn’t have anyone who loves him back home, Hank criticizes him for not ‘talking right’ and staying within the boundaries of polite conversation. When Manny gets an erection looking at Hank’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, Hank becomes embarrassed and quickly takes the magazine away, telling Manny about the dangers of sexual arousal and masturbation. Hank explains to Manny that he couldn’t possibly tell Sarah how much he is in love with her, because of his fear of rejection.
Because of his cultural and family upbringing, along with his own personal fears, Hank builds a prison of inauthenticity and he lives a caged life. He isn’t free. This prison of inauthenticity ultimately robs him of his sanity, leading him to consider suicide as the only viable option to express his authentic self.
You learn more about Hank’s life as the movie progresses. There’s a sad juxtaposition between the freedom that Hank experiences in his friendship with Manny, and the restrictions that Hank experiences in the ‘real world.’ There is an energy and vibrancy to Hank that is beautiful to watch during the times when he actually allows himself to let go and be himself. Unfortunately, he can’t let himself be in that place for very long, before the ‘real world’ forces him back into his shell.
As I left the theater, I felt sad for myself, and began to think about the restrictions I place on my own freedom, due to the rules of my cultural upbringing, as well as my fears. Often these restrictions rob me of my energy and joy. I wondered about how Manny would react if he were able to see my unfiltered thoughts and decisions throughout the day. Would he say to me like he did to Hank: “That’s so sad. That’s so sad. What are we even going back home for?”
How do we move toward living an authentic life? Here are three steps I have found to be helpful:
- Get to know yourself. Sometimes I struggle to live an authentic life because I don’t know what the authentic Josh actually is. For example, when my friend and I were trying to decide what movie to watch, I didn’t offer my opinion. Part of the reason I held back was that I hadn’t gotten in touch with myself to think about what movie I really wanted to see. I didn’t express my authentic self because I didn’t know what it was. It can be helpful to develop a daily practice of solitude to check in with yourself. What is going on inside you? How are you feeling? What are you wanting? Who are you really?
- Question everything. We often live our lives according to a rigid set of rules that are dictated by our cultural, religious, or family upbringing. Part of this socialization is necessary for us to grow and develop into adults that can function in society. But as we grow older, we may find that certain rules we follow don’t fit for us anymore. For example, maybe your parents wanted you to become a doctor, but you felt most alive in your art classes. The philosopher Socrates was famous for questioning everything, even principles that were widely accepted by almost everyone. Socrates would ask, “Is it true?” I encourage you to do the same about the rules and guidelines that you follow in your own life. Be curious and consider each one. “Is it true?” “Is it beneficial?” “Is it moving me toward or away from my authentic self?”
- Breathe through fear. We often struggle to engage our authentic self because of our fear. What if I fail? What if I am rejected? What would others think of me if I did [fill in the blank]? Fear holds us back. When you feel scared, my recommendation is to breathe and step forward. The psychologist Fritz Perls once said, “Fear is excitement without the breath.” Fear and excitement are both high arousal emotions—very close to one another in the brain. When we hold our breath, our tendency is to shrink back, become small, and move away. When we breathe freely, our tendency is to expand, get big, and move toward. Whenever you feel fear, use the fear as a cue to breathe, and take a step toward your fear.
Discussion: Where in your life are you living without authenticity? What is one step you could take to engage with your authentic self?