In one respect, authenticity should come naturally. It ought to be easy to be ourselves. We would avoid having to prepare the face to meet the faces that [we] meet, the dilemma of Eliot’s anti-hero, J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock belied his true, inner self in a vain attempt to court women and impress the upper crust. He navigated the social realm through a false persona. Like Prufrock, I often strain beneath a glistering veneer in order to forfend my tender, genuine self against a tide of rejection and condemnation.
I remember working on my degree at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco. Drawn to criminal defense, I strove to become a protégé of Bernard Segal. I was enamored of Bernie’s brilliance and charisma. A professor and practitioner, he had been the defense lawyer in the infamous Fatal Vision trial of Jeffrey MacDonald, former Green Beret doctor accused of killing his wife and daughters.
Initially confident in my intellectual skills, I felt law school gradually wither away my self-esteem. In Bernie’s criminal litigation classes, however, I came alive. I used wit, savvy, theatrics and intelligence wherever sharp legal acumen was wanting. Ultimately, Bernie gave me a shot at being his research assistant. I tried my best to help him with the complex appeal of an accountant convicted of conspiracy. The case and client seemed worthy, but it would take more than savvy and charm on my part to find the winning argument.
I felt inadequate to the task, yet I admired Bernie so much that I persisted in shoes that were clearly too large for me. Bernie harbored a wealth of trial experience, as well as life experience. He exuded confidence and keen insight. He thought quickly on his feet. He had the ability to weave an impenetrable case. These were not superficially crafted attributes designed to dazzle and impress: they emanated naturally from the fiery core of who he was.
Back then, I was more concerned with being cool, suave and slender in my blue polyester pinstripe suit. We smoked Macanudos together in his office. I tried to portray this sophisticated, tastefully androgynous, funny, brainy person. I wanted to be a peer of this man whom I so admired and wanted to emulate. Inside, I was this insecure girl, fearful at every turn. I constantly felt like an actor without a script in the wrong profession.
After weeks of Bernie’s undeniable authenticity, I decided to experiment with being more genuine. I implored with great earnestness, Bernie. How do you do it? How do you go into a courtroom where the judge, jury and weight of the evidence are likely against you? How do you face a judge who disdains you and your client? How do you deal with such adversity and remain confident?
He must have thought me jejune, yet his watery blue eyes sparkled and returned my gaze with only kind affection. Gently he replied, “Once I accepted that I was never going to look like Robert Redford, everything was fine.”
I was nonplussed by his comment. Like most of the twenty-somethings in my night law class, I had developed an immense crush on Professor Segal. None of the usual imperfections mattered –bags under the eyes, pronounced proboscis, starchy grey hair receding from the forehead and scattering in a shock of waves at the back like some improbable, wind-blown Einstein. All I saw was this person I adored, with brilliant blue eyes, theatrically gesticulating hands, and complete self-assurance.
Suddenly, the honesty and intimacy of his disclosure pierced through to the heart of me. I had to admit to myself that for most of my life, I, too, had foolishly allowed the perception that I was not conventionally pretty to taint my every pursuit, and to inhibit my expressing my true self. Insecurity drove me to seek approval and conformity rather that to develop my talents and uniqueness.
Bernie’s words rang true; his formula was simple. Love yourself. Accept yourself just as you are. Only from that strong base of authenticity can you act in your own best interests — secure, bona fide, genuine, the real deal.