Alien Authenticity

Ethan Richardson
Wednesday, May 1st 2013
May/Jun 2013

In the first scene of the first season of HBO's new sitcom Girls, Hannah (played by Lena Dunham) is out to dinner with her parents to be "let down easy" with regard to her postgraduate finances. After the last glass of wine is poured, her mother declares, "You graduated from college two years ago; we've been supporting you for two years, and that's enough." Stunned, Hannah rifles off a very funny list of reasons why she should continue to be supported and then finally, exasperated, relents: "I'm so close to the life that I want, the life that you want for me, and you want to just end that, right now?" Apparently they do. Her mom responds bluntly, "No’more’money."

In my opinion, the new show is an acute barometer of the state of affairs for many people my age. It's a controversial comedy, but no one is arguing with its diagnoses. And Girls isn't alone; I'm sure you could name at least five recent films that depict a hapless 20-something in the plot, or books and editorials you've read about man-children, or pop psychology blogs describing our "age of anxiety." This cultural breadcrumb trail leads us to a phenomenon that is being called an extended phase of "emerging adulthood," the "Odyssey stage," or "adultescence."

Data shows that more and more 20-somethings are bypassing the typical route into adulthood. In 1970, 70 percent of Americans had already married, had kids, and purchased a house before their thirtieth birthday; today, by the same birthday, less than 40 percent of Americans have done so. As the New York Times put it, "The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as [we] remain untethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes…avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life." It seems that, in all categories, the 20-somethings are suffering a deep existential paralysis that is prolonging adolescent angst.

Asking Why

While the economy has been a factor, and no one is denying the rise of performance pressure, it seems impossible to talk about "adultescents" without also talking about their technological lingua franca, Facebook, and the surge of other social media networks that have surfaced in its wake.

It is hard to communicate the scale and reach of Facebook's connectivity. It was the first website to tally one trillion page views in a month, and Facebook users generate an average of 2.7 billion "likes" and comments every day, not to mention the 750 million photos uploaded each weekend. More than that, nearly half of emerging adults the world over check their Facebook page minutes after waking up, and 28 percent of emerging adults, worldwide, check Facebook before even getting out of bed. (1)

The social media statistics are more stupefying than anything, but studies have also revealed a uniquely unsettling loneliness in our time. In May 2012, The Atlantic released "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" and called attention to the decrease in personal confidants as well as the increase of those employed in "professional care." As Stephen Marche writes:

In the late '40s, the United States was home to 2,500 clinical psychologists, 30,000 social workers, and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists. As of 2010, the country had 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 400,000 nonclinical social workers, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 105,000 mental-health counselors, 220,000 substance-abuse counselors, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches. The majority of patients in therapy do not warrant a psychiatric diagnosis. This raft of psychic servants is helping us through what use to be called regular problems. We have outsourced the work of everyday caring. (2)

While bleak, the numbers haven't kept social media from quickly becoming the primary source of human communication for most emerging adults. I wish I could say I wasn't a participant; alas, I find myself guiltily among the ranks of likers, commenters, and feed-readers. I keep up with my nieces and nephew this way. I have an Instagram feed that allows me to share a well-spent Saturday. I think maybe three people follow me on Pinterest.

While it's easy to wag a finger and cry vanity, correlation is not necessarily causation, and though social media might be an enabler to our propensity for self-isolation, it's not more than that. This is to say, Facebook doesn't create isolation so much as it stirs the pot. For people naturally inclined toward isolation, Facebook, with its omnipresent avenues for secret voyeurism and public pulpiteering, provides a startlingly powerful magnifying glass on the human heart. And what is this diagnosis for the emerging adult? Why are we, as Sherry Turkle's book describes, "alone together"? Certainly it has something to do with the personal validation we've been bred to crave.

Self-esteem and personal "distinction talk" make up a large part of the adultescent's development. Many of us, from a very young age, exhibited a ballooning self-esteem. We were told that the career opportunities were endless, that if we reached or dreamed, we'd find the perfect match for our unique potential. We sought this distinction and were affirmed in its pursuit to a ludicrous degree. As Sally Koslow says in Slouching Toward Adulthood: "The destiny of each child, parents have grown to believe, is to realize and maximize their own brand of distinction. Oprah may have started preaching to the viewer to 'live your best life' in the 1980s. Perhaps she got the inspiration from boomer parents who started being vainglorious about their children as soon as they had them." (3)

The emphasis on distinction and destiny has created in today's emerging adult an onerous belief in the importance of unmitigated choice in one's destiny, as well as the equally onerous need for those choices to be validated at every turn. The product, then, is a tirelessly anxious and affection-hungry generation.

Curator of Your Self-Image

Of course, this distinction theme isn't a new phenomenon. It has been a staple of the rugged individualism of the American way (think of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," or Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance"). Today, though, with the help of technology, distinction for emerging adults has become a 24/7 mission, primarily in terms of maintaining a public image of success and happiness. More than just having impressive-sounding majors, interesting travels to Southeast Asia, or low-paying fellowships in the City, there are immediate, handheld venues for authentic expression. More than ever, the opportunity (and pressure) to self-curate is at our fingertips.

And yet, in talking about it like an omnipresent weight, we forget that it's also fun. It feels good to have an experience validated: like getting a compliment, last night's dinner feels a little bit hipper in retrospect once you see the images your friend tagged on Instagram with the Earlybird filter. You share some thoughts on your "wall," your friends "like" them, and it feels as if you're sharing a new experience all over again. Though it may sound tongue-in-cheek, it feels rewarding to smooth the rough edges, as Marche describes:

The beauty of Facebook, the source of its power, is that it enables us to be social while sparing us the embarrassing reality of society…. Instead, we have the lovely smoothness of a seemingly social machine. (4)

While we enjoy the thrill of distinguishing our experiences, the anxiety it generates paralyzes the potential to call any kind of experience "authentic." This tends to be the root of much of the anxiety of 20-somethings today: the gap between the curated experience and the real thing. The Facebook user must succumb to the never-ending job of selecting, out of an arresting number of choices, the right choice that makes one "authentic." Because all forms of social media operate on a continual and instantaneous feedback loop, the human need for validation is perpetually checked and rechecked, throughout the day, every day.

Essayist Walker Percy touched on this need for validation by telling a story about a couple's search for the "authentic" vacation experience. Going down to Mexico, they wanted to find an experience that is "it," that no one else had ever seen, that would serve as a purely distilled capturing of "authentic human experience." When they found an ancient tribe that seemed untouched by modern civilization, they believed they had found "it," but curiously they also felt a simultaneous dread that their friend, an anthropologist, might tell them that "it" was, in fact, not genuine. They need their friend, the Expert (a figure who surely represents the law), to certify their experience as "authentic": "The present experience is always measured by a prototype, the 'it' of their dreams. 'Now I am really living' means that now I am filling the role of sightseer and the sight is living up to the prototype of sights….Hence their anxiety during the encounter. For at any minute something could go wrong." (5)

This, for Percy, is the "loss of the creature"; we have shipped off the validation of our authenticity to anyone we believe could be an authority. This is true of social media’we judge our tweets by their re-tweets, their comments, their likes’and because it is frenetic, the tides of validation are rapidly ebbing and flowing. This floundering validation before the law of authenticity actually kills one's genuine encounter with an experience.

This becomes true of loving relationships, too, and especially helps explain the "commitment fear" that plagues this generation. We cohabitate, move around, sleep around, marry late, if at all; motivated more by our need for validation than by our experience of love, it is no surprise that, as David Brooks says, "everything gives way to a less permanent version of itself." (6)

A Cultural Analogy for Imputation

Allowing only sound-bite-sized room for connections and relationships, social media commodifies love into a temporary, mirror-gazing affair. Jonathan Franzen says as much in a piece he wrote for the New York Times. He talks about the Facebook "like" tab and its neatness in comparison to the muddy complexity of love:

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you're going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you'll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don't like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you're having an actual life. (7)

What I think Franzen is getting at here has a lot to do with what's known in Christian terms as "imputation" and its relationship with identity. Imputation is this old legal term that means someone is being given or ascribed characteristics they don't actually have. It is the way God justifies man in Christ’we are given an alien righteousness, in light of Christ's suffering on the cross and obedient life.

The characteristic we long for’that we long to see validated’is the righteousness we know in better terms as "authenticity." In the world of "likes," with our Facebook profile, a Twitter feed, and a résumé, we are often attempting to create a closed-circuit imputation system. Our hope is that, by way of the profile we curate publically, we can impute to ourselves the self we long to be. Social media, in this sense, serves as a platform for our own self-mediated authenticity, and ultimately for our own self-justification.

The problem with this, though, is that it will never be enough. As Franzen indicates, we will at some point be forced to visit our own depravity. Besides, no "likes" will ever be enough, either. We will always fear that the self being "liked" on our Facebook page is that curated imagining of Me, and not the mysterious, complex, authentic Me.

The gospel addresses and counters the need for validation in this way. For the adultescent who cannot earn the authenticity he or she seeks, for the profile he or she made (and will continue to update) to validate this authenticity, God in Jesus brings the only imputation that doesn't need reloading.

1 [ Back ] Stephen Marche, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" The Atlantic,May 2012,
2 [ Back ] Marche.
3 [ Back ] Sally Koslow, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest (New York: Viking, 2012), 36.
4 [ Back ] Marche.
5 [ Back ] Walker Percy, "The Loss of the Creature," in The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 52-53.
6 [ Back ] David Brooks, "The Odyssey Year," New York Times, October 9, 2007,
7 [ Back ] Jonathan Franzen, "Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts," New York Times, May 28, 2011,
Wednesday, May 1st 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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