In the Spirit of the Pursuit

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a great affinity for nonhuman life. On one summer trip to a cottage in northern Ontario (some time in the late 80s, if memory serves me right), my brother and I found an injured frog and, in our good nature, brought it home and attempted to nurse it back to health. We kept it safe, gave it water to drink and bugs to eat, and eventually returned it to the lake, under the impression that we had saved its small and unassuming life. Whether or not we had, I can’t be certain. But I remember how I felt about that little frog, way back then; it’s the same feeling that I have today for all life, human or otherwise. I just wanted it to have a chance, because we should all have our chance. I wanted it to be everything that it could be, uninhibited by the misgivings of the world around it or the misfortunes that befall some more than others.

Today, I understand that my compassion for nonhuman life is due in part to an enduring appreciation for the value of authenticity—a state in which one is able to be one’s true self; to fulfill one’s biological potential and realize everything that one could be. It is an idea that means a great deal to me as an individual, and I extend this value to others, whether they be human, frog, or otherwise. Why else are we here, if not to maximize the time we’ve been given? If not to know ourselves and our place in the world, in a way that aligns with our true nature?

Psychologists have been talking about authenticity for quite some time. It’s akin to the notion of self-actualization, described by Abraham Maslow as the process of an organism becoming more and more of what it is; everything that it is capable of becoming. Like Maslow, the existentialists described such an authentic existence as living according to one’s true self. In their view, this means living a life that is honest, insightful, and, critically, moral. You see, in order for everyone to have their shot at authenticity, it is necessary for us humans to be our true selves only insomuch that we are able to do so without violating the rights of others. To achieve authenticity in this way (through acts of exploitation or violence, for instance) would limit others’ ability to live authentically and, in effect, invalidate the very notion at hand—or at least constrain it, making it a more viable path for those with power and less so for those without. Yet this runs contrary to the foundations of both humanistic and existential domains. An authentic, actualized existence is not reserved for the powerful or elite. It is an ideal state for everyone—arguably, the optimal state of all life.

It is here that my affinity for nonhuman life intersects with my commitment to human rights and, more broadly, social justice and equality. To be alive on this earth—no matter one’s species or race, age or ability, sexual orientation or gender identity—is to be afforded a rare opportunity. The potential that lies within that opportunity, whether it be mighty or meek, is the greatest of gifts. Should one be so fortunate to know existence, they should know it to the fullest extent, if only to give back to the whole and leave this place better than it was. The true potential of any one life lies not in its own growth or aggrandizement, but in its ability to improve the world from which it came. This is the potential of life in its maximal form. It is authenticity in its highest and most satisfying expression.

It is the unfortunate reality, however, that for any number of reasons one’s potential may never be realized. (I’m not naive enough to believe that the laws of nature are so forgiving.) But our species is one that possesses great agency in this world, seen not only in our capacity for self-determination but also our morality, such that we are able to exceed our instincts and act in the name of higher pursuits. We are able to do more to ensure that our agency—and, by extension, our pursuit of authenticity—unfolds in a way that allows others to realize their true selves free of any infringements from us. In our search for the ideal, we are able to act in good conscience because we maintain the capacity for moral reasoning and the ability to act freely on such grounds. Indeed, such reasoning is part of who we are as Homo sapiens, a product of our very nature and a function of our DNA; to live authentically as a human being is therefore to live in a way that maximizes our moral proclivities, too. To live authentically is to consider others, before we consider ourselves.

Such a proposition has important implications for matters of nonhuman rights and animal liberation. If we were to see such reasoning through to its rightful end, we would arrive upon a human existence in which our animal kin were treated with the same respect and compassion as our human neighbours (should we be so kind), free of oppression and exploitation. If we were to see such reasoning through, human potential would no longer be realized at the expense of other life.

There are similar implications for our human world. In our pursuit of an authentic existence, we should be mindful of the privileges had by some and the disadvantages such privileges bestow upon others. The inequalities that pervade human societies ultimately limit opportunities for authenticity, enhancing the potentials of some while stifling those of others. I have often heard it said (by those who resist efforts aimed at acceptance and inclusion) that we all have hardships to endure, as if social inequalities in their present and exaggerated forms are just a part of life; natural and, perhaps, even necessary. Yet we maintain control over systems of exclusion and oppression, as we do over acts that aim to limit and divide. By way of our capacities for morality and self-directed behaviour, we have the ability to end such vices should we be motivated to do so. Illness, aging, death, loss—these are the things we must all endure by mere consequence of being alive. But hate and bigotry, and all the pain and suffering that follow, can be beaten, and in effect the potential of all individuals maximized. To live authentically as human beings is to live in a way that maximizes our moral proclivities. To live authentically is to consider others before we consider ourselves, and help build a world in which everyone is enabled equally to be their true selves; to know themselves and to see themselves in a way that allows them to be seen by others.

The realization that acts of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression are in fact barriers to authenticity is perhaps a sobering one, if not altogether disconcerting. Whether an individual is oppressed as a function of their nonhuman status (an act of speciesism) or by way of group membership (as we see in racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on), the capacity to maximize their potential is restricted as a result. In effect, authenticity as an optimal state of life is compromised, for no longer is it equally attainable; no longer is it possible for everyone.

Illness, aging, death, loss—these are the things we must all endure. These are the conditions of life, should we be afforded the rare opportunity. But hate, exclusion, and oppression—these are human constructions for which the capacity for morality is an effective remedy. Similarly, the recognition of privilege, whether the result of one’s membership in a particular species or group, is up to each of us to confront as individuals. And though it may be tempting to live for ourselves and ourselves alone, intentionally ignorant to our privilege and the suffering it imposes upon others, any truly authentic existence requires that we confront honestly all aspects of reality—even those that make us uncomfortable and, hopefully (especially), those that mobilize us to leave this world a better place than we found it, for those whose potential is stifled and those for whom existence itself is not yet realized. The pursuit of an authentic life is not a worthy pursuit otherwise, for it is only when we are free from unnatural infringements that we may truly know ourselves and live this life to the fullest…

…whether we are human or frog, chimpanzee or bumblebee, stork or rattler. All life is a matter of potential; it is only by working together and in balance with the world around us that we humans will ever realize ours. It is who we are, after all. It’s who we were meant to be—in this pursuit and all others.

1 thought on “In the Spirit of the Pursuit”

  1. Paul Tiberghien

    Beautifully said! An important reminder to squeeze the marrow out of life every single day, to the greatest of our ability.

    I struggled with the concept of authenticity for a while — I’m not sure there is such thing as a “true self”. When you look inward, what if you’re unhappy with what you find? To what extent should you confront those things that make you uncomfortable? And what part of yourself should you strive to live in accordance with? Sometimes, staying true to your values means being false to your personality, to your emotions, to your thoughts.

    “… to have their shot at authenticity, it is necessary for us humans to be our true selves only insomuch that we are able to do so without violating the rights of others. ”

    Strongly agree with this. To quote Adam Grant: “Authenticity without boundaries is careless. Authenticity without empathy is selfish.”

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