Aesop’s fable ‘The Ass in the Lion’s Skin’ depicts a duplicitous ass who dons an old lion’s skin in order to masquerade as the king of beasts. The ploy works until he tries to speak. When he does his asinine tone betrays him. While the moral usually drawn from this tale is that foolish words will always betray a fool no matter what his guise, I choose to see it as an exhortation to authenticity. One must always discover their true voice despite being concealed under layers of disguise. The timeless wisdom of this ancient fable popped into my mind while reading coverage of the American republican and democratic national conventions
The one common concern shared by both the republican and the democrat conventions was to strip away the layers of myth that naturally adhere to public figures and to expose the real person running for high office, who inevitably is just an ordinary guy. Yet ironically it is in presenting the candidates as ordinary guys that the most extensive mythmaking occurs.
Michelle Obama delivered a folksy account of Barak the man, husband and father. Ann Romney took listeners behind the scene to portray the real Mitt. The delegates predictably lapped it up. Apparently it didn’t occur to any of them that these heart to heart speeches by a candidate’s spouse are amongst the most heavily edited and spun orations one is likely to hear. There is a science to political speechwriting. On multimillion dollar US presidential campaigns there are teams of speechwriters, analysts and strategists who will pick over every phrase and word before vetting a speech. What emerges is anything but the conversational ‘heart to heart’ chats portrayed by the candidates’ wives. Instead of their words revealing the man who would be president they only serve to further conceal him. There is little that is genuine and nothing that is spontaneous in these heavily airbrushed speeches calculated to elicit as much applause as possible. Yet the irony is lost on hundreds of delegates and thousands of TV viewers who applaud wildly believing they have glimpsed the authentic candidate.
It is not just in the world of politics that the authentic voice is muted. Celebrity culture is another obvious example of a continuous masquerade. All we know about celebrities is what they choose to reveal and invariably they choose to reveal what they think we want to see. Celebrity magazines are a multi-million pound business and yet for all they reveal the real celebrity is kept well hidden. This is also true of the world of business where people tend to project an image to a client that is very different from the image projected to a partner or competitor.
In a certain sense we all suffer from a lack of authenticity. We assume many roles and project many images of ourselves on a daily basis. We may in turn be a spouse, parent, commuter, client, citizen, consumer, neighbour and friend. To each of these roles we bring not just what we believe the role demands but also what others expect to see. At the end of the day it can be difficult to divest ourselves from these accumulated layers of synthetic identity and like the donkey at the beginning of Aesop’s fable we lose sight of who we really are.
The central ritual of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is the sounding of a ram’s horn known in Hebrew as a Shofar. One of the explanations of this ancient ritual is that the simple, raw, unadorned sound of the ram’s horn simulates a human cry. Where cleverly crafted words conceal our innermost thoughts and feelings the human cry reveals them. The sound of the Shofar then is the deep calling of the authentic self.
This does not mean that one can, or should, expose their deepest self in all the many different roles they assume on a daily basis. Such intensity can be untenable. It does mean however that we should not lose sight of the authentic self and to allow it, at least in some degree to shine through the multiple necessary guises we assume. In narrowing the gap between who we are and how we are perceived we come to live a life of greater authenticity, holism and meaning.