Weird & Güd - How Much of You, is You?
Destroy a country, or destroy yourself.
|Salomé Sibonex||Dec 24, 2020||16||4|
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
Is our life merely the product of chance, or is there another element within us that can take the bleakest situation and build a legacy? The story of how an exiled Russian peasant took a leading role in the demise of a 300-year old dynasty might convince you there’s more to life than just circumstance.
That Russian outcast was none other than the infamous historical figure who needs no more than a surname: Rasputin.
Born a peasant, his parents had 9 children, 7 that died by early childhood. Don’t feel unease over what would be a tragedy for us today; in his birth year of 1869, Rasputin’s childhood was the picture of normalcy.
Illiterate until around the time you’d likely be entering university, Rasputin was a misfit with a shifty personality. His disinterest in following the common path for someone born a peasant made him a thorn in the side of his rural, religious town; he stole, drank, and flouted authority.
Though he married and had 3 children, Rasputin was not cut from the kind of cloth which could accept that what was given was all that was possible.
With 10 years of marriage, an infant, and a pregnant wife, Rasputin made the 20th-century Russian peasant equivalent of a mid-life crisis motorcycle purchase—he left his town and peasant life behind to wander throughout Russia, sometimes years at a time.
If you want a full biography on Rasputin, there are better sources than this newsletter. The strangeness in Raputin’s story isn’t found in any particular events, but in his personality.
Rasputin didn’t start an outright religious cult or political party as the power-hungry usually do. He was aligned with the major religion of the time, yet his practice was all his own, blending a kind of mystical spiritualism that gained him a wide following of bored and repressed aristocrats.
Not magic, not malevolence, but a cunning kind of charisma gave Rasputin the ability to rise from the laborious, boring lifestyle he was born to in the boondocks of Russia.
The kind of magic the mad monk wielded was one that, in the right dose, can make a Siberian vagabond a tsar’s confidant.
There are two ways to understand the story of Rasputin: the lens of unabashed hedonism and the good of society. To see Rasputin as an individual human and nothing more is to see a man with no future and no path for making his life any bigger than the plot of land that fed him. Most peasants were too concerned with survival to pursue these nagging feelings of insignificance. Rasputin was not one.
The insignificance of his existence was more unbearable than any death by starvation.
As a man who lived for no one but himself, Rasputin was a success. Though he abandoned his wife and children, died a criminal, a liar, a manipulator, and helped open the door to one of the most bloody and murderous regimes in history—he was not a peasant.
There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear
He could preach the Bible like a preacher
Full of ecstasy and fire
Through the lens of society—a lens that sees the reality of our interconnected existence—Rasputin was a forgotten campfire in a California forest.
The Russian people worked in gloomy, poisonous factories for pennies that couldn’t buy the bread that had long disappeared from the markets. People were starving and losing loved ones to a losing war they fought with barely any boots to stand in the mud and wait for death in.
Meanwhile, Rasputin lunched with the tsarina and her children by day, and drunkenly rampaged by night, taking bribes and sexual favors with no shame.
The tsar and tsarina lived the epitome of life behind the palace walls. It was that chasm between tsar Nicolas and the common man that ultimately brought about the end of the Russian monarchy. Nicolas genuinely believed he had an inalienable bond with the Russian people that could survive any hardship and error.
What does some dusty old fall of a dynasty have to do with us today? The fall of this dynasty didn’t unleash some celebratory freedom, but a new dystopia for the Russians that culminated in over 20 million people—teachers, writers, farmers, priests, and peasants—murdered.
The story of Rasputin is two stories. It’s the story of a lowly, illiterate peasant determined to pursue as boundless a life as possible and the story of two leaders with centuries of accumulated wealth and power and little interest in wielded it.
It’s the story of how two opposite worlds meshed, despite every rule and custom that says they couldn’t.
It’s a story that ends with an exiled peasant living like royalty and royalty living like exiles, both eventually meeting the same demise: disdain and bullets.
Perhaps our circumstances do dictate our lives, but when an illiterate peasant can make himself welcome in a palace and a 300-year old dynasty can be felled in 23 years, the unpredictable element that makes our lives our lives cannot be denied.
Virgin and Child with Angels (Detail), Bartolomeo Cavarozzi (1587-1625)
"I am not prepared to be a tsar.
I never wanted to become one.
I know nothing of the business of ruling."
—Tsar Nicolas, shortly before his coronation.
Who do you think you are?
Are you really you? Are you always you? Are you, at least, usually you? How much you are you?
The question of whether you are you isn’t as psychedelic sounding as it seems. Since grade school, we’ve sneered at “posers.” Even our young brains could sense we sometimes choose to be someone other than ourselves.
In a culture where “be yourself” became such ubiquitous advice that it sounds more like a punchline than a philosophy, the idea of authenticity has long been gathering dust alongside it.
Authenticity—just another feel-good term to comfort an insecure college kid before they sit down for a job interview, right?
Not if existentialism has anything to say about it.
Understanding authenticity through the popular advice to be yourself doesn’t answer the natural question that follows: how?
The common understanding of authenticity includes honesty, living in line with your values, and holding to your beliefs even if they place you in the minority. Philosophy takes authenticity a step further.
To be yourself, you must question yourself.
How can you be honest if you don’t know what’s true? How can you live your values if you haven’t named them?
As much of existentialism does, authenticity comes down to choice. There is no destination of Authentistan 5 miles ahead on the left. There is no Authenticity for Dummies step-by-step guide. No graduate program can award you a degree in authenticity.
How could authenticity be a static achievement next to the certificates on your shelf when you yourself aren’t a static being? The paradox of being yourself is that your self is always changing. The authentic version of you from 1 year ago is no longer the most authentic version of you today.
Authenticity is a pursuit, not a possession.
While the possibility of failure is always there, the possibility of you is only a choice away.
Yet, authenticity that concerns itself with nothing but itself is merely egocentrism. To do only what you want whenever you want it and never consider the existence of others is to live in a fabricated world.
What could be more inauthentic than life in an echo chamber?
Authenticity can be understood more as an art than a science, more as an existence than an object. It’s a constant process of balance and rebalance.
We are made more authentic not by avoiding the world, but by taking on the experiences that give us the choice to be authentic. Yet, it’s that very world that chips away at our authenticity through its influence. That influence isn’t entirely an obstacle, though; without understanding that our world molds and sways us, we have no way to see the difference and decide between us and what influences us.
This messy, murky process we call “finding myself” is as man-made as any bridge or building. It’s only because the human species has been gifted the burden of a self that we’ve been burdened with the gift of finding it. Just as we created tools to hunt and build, so too, have we created tools for managing our minds:
Reflection and self-examination are the microscopes that help you study the specimen of you. How can you be you if you don’t know who is the you you’re seeking?
Openness to hearing others, personal responsibility, and humility are the catalysts of change. How can you change if you don’t know what to change, don’t believe that change is yours to make, or don’t believe there is anything about you worth changing to begin with?
Courage is the flame over which all the qualities of authenticity are heated into action. Authenticity alone can’t help you stand for your beliefs; without the courage to bear rejection and failure, there can be no authenticity.
The most interesting thing about authenticity is not authenticity at all, but the qualities that birth it.
Of all the ingredients for authenticity, courage is the most indispensable.
While Heidegger and Sartre disagreed on whether authenticity came of facing and accepting our inevitable death or confronting the meaninglessness of our lives and transforming that void into meaning, they both knew that nothing true comes without courage.
You may not be required to face lions and snakes to survive today, but perhaps these predictable predators are less frightening than what we must face now—ourselves.
Digging around in the stew of insecurities, suffering, hope, and vulnerability we call the self requires the courage to face whatever we might find.
Instead, it’s much easier to outsource the work of being ourselves to other people: what should you believe, what is meaningful, what is ethical? You can purchase an entire personality from other people for the low, low cost of ever knowing who you are.
Existential authenticity requires you to make your own choices—a heavy burden, no doubt. Albert Camus offered absurdism as the answer to accepting the impossible task of building meaning in a meaningless world…and then doing it anyway.
Whatever path you choose to take to yourself, be sure it’s yours. You may believe all the “right” ideas and make all the “good” choices, but if those ideas and choices are not truly yours, but merely what you’ve been told should be yours, you may call yourself moral, but never authentic.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me.