Living authentically means that my external behaviors accurately reflect my internal self. That is, what I do and say in the world at large aligns with what I think and value inside my head. In Chassidic thought, a person who lives truthfully is called an atzmi, which is related to the Hebrew word etzem (bone). This implies that in order to be authentic we have to identify and consistently articulate our most essential selves - those aspects of our personalities that best define who we are. So often, our public selves are instead an ever-shifting series of masks or personae that we put on to either keep ourselves safe or to opportunistically achieve some desired result. This may be expedient, but over the course of time we will lose touch with who we really are and become alienated from ourselves. Of course, this does not imply that we should never compromise or adapt to various situations. Rather, it means that whatever compromise is achieved must reflect our core values so that we do not find ourselves living at odds with our most fundamental truths.
A close friend recently related a story that beautifully demonstrates this idea:
Many years ago there was a Chinese emperor who was getting on in years and fretting over the fact that he did not have any children to continue his legacy. Therefore, he devised a plan that would help him identify the one person in the kingdom best qualified to rule after him. He randomly invited hundreds of people to his palace and announced that one of them was going to be the new emperor after he died. The astounded assembly gasped and trembled to hear what the emperor would say next. He lifted up a bag filled with seeds and stated that they would each get one seed and that the new emperor would be selected based on the quality of the plants produced from those seeds.
A small boy was among the crowd that day. He excitedly got his seed and took it home to his mother. She helped him plant it in a small pot, water it, and place it in the sun. He dutifully cared for the seed and watched hopefully for something to sprout, but it never did. Several weeks went by and nothing happened – he was left staring at an empty jade pot. Of course, the entire kingdom was quickly abuzz with the news of the contest and everyone was talking about how the people with the seeds were doing. Tales of the exotic flowers and full, bushy plants being tended by the contestants filled the streets and market places while this small boy looked forlornly at his pile of dirt. He became more and more depressed as time wore on.
A whole year passed and the emperor summoned everyone back to his palace to judge the products of their labors. The boy meekly joined the others streaming back to the emperor with their wide variety of flowers, plants, fruit trees, and shrubs. A veritable walking botanic garden filed through the gates and into the main courtyard. The boy found his place at the back of the assembly and tried to hide. The emperor suddenly stepped onto a platform and surveyed all the plants before him. There was absolute silence for many minutes until his eyes finally landed on the small boy with the empty pot and he signaled for the guards to bring him to the front. They shouldered their way through the crowd and brought the boy to the emperor who hugged and kissed the shocked lad. The emperor gazed out at the people and proclaimed in a loud voice that their new emperor, who would take his place after he died, was standing before them.
The emperor then revealed that all the seeds given out a year ago had been boiled. Therefore, there was no way that any of them could have sprouted because they were all dead. He shook his head sadly as he explained that everyone, except this boy, must have replaced their seeds. Only he was fit to rule, because only he had the courage to honest.
We often feel compelled to say or do things contrary to our own belief systems because we feel that we will be judged poorly if we do not. We’re worried that we will not “fit in” or “move forward” if we do not present ourselves as we think others want us to be. While there might be short-term advantages to this approach, over the course of time, we will grow further and further away from our true selves and lose sight of who we really are. This is a problem from a Chassidic perspective because each of us was born according to G-d’s design and the Creator is waiting expectantly for us to employ our innate talents, traits, genius, and quirks. There is a unique role for each of us to play in the perfection of the world which will remain unfilled until we live according to our true selves. This keeps the ultimate fulfillment of creation on hold until we can discover and utilize our essential personalities.
On his deathbed, the great Chassidic master, Reb Zusia of Anipoli, said that he was not at all concerned about being asked – upon arrival in the world to come – why he was not more like Moses, Abraham, or King David. However, he was very worried that he might be asked, “Zusia, why were you not more like Zusia?” Each of us is obligated to fully use the gifts endowed to us by the Creator. This often means having the courage to truly be ourselves even when this makes us appear out of sync with those around us, because the truth is, that they may have all replaced the seeds given to them by the King with those of their own making.