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Columns

Live Authentic

Breaking an intellectual comfort zone, a mile at a time

By Brynn A. Elliott

What about that moment when a human actively decides to step outside herself? Phrases such as “getting out of the comfort zone” and “taking risks” describe this phenomenon—they point to something deep within us telling us not to be complacent. We hear these words all the time—even the act of applying to college in and of itself is an act of getting outside oneself. And our life at Harvard seems constantly marked with the brush of possibility, if only we get out there and chase it.

The first day I walked on Harvard’s campus as a tourist, I remember going up to a girl after sitting in on a philosophy class. I asked her, “What is it like to be a student here?” She paused, smiled, took a deep breath and looking me straight in the eye, she said, “You can’t expect anyone to hold your hand here, but if you put yourself out there you will love it.”

She was right.

Getting outside the comfort zone can happen intellectually just as much as it can physically. This past semester I experienced this in taking Courtney Lamberth's Religion 57, titled “Faith and Authenticity.” At first, I was skeptical of the class. What was with this nebulous title? I came to Harvard to seek out what is true, but the idea of taking a class about faith or this concept of authenticity was not what I thought I signed up for. Besides, faith and authenticity were personal and not academic to me. How could such concepts that vary from human to human be studied?

But I think I was more scared to take this class than curious. I had some sense of faith, and knew I wanted that faith to be authentic, but I was afraid of what that would mean. What ideas would I have to sacrifice for the sake of truth, for the sake of this class? So in the end and four study cards later, I turned in the only one with Religion 57.

My red-bricked beliefs and my cold-stoned convictions met a blank white wall. This wall gave me freedom—it gave me the space to repaint my entire framework of thinking. In the course of class discussion, I was forced to reconsider my ideas about faith, human freedom, authenticity, love, life and death. Most of these I had previously left unexplored; even though I grew up in a devotedly Christian family, I had not truly taken the time to read and think about what it means to live the authentic life. I want to share that experience, I want this column to be a blank white wall for its readers.

Yet such philosophical and heady subjects are enormously difficult to talk about—they are by nature incredibly abstract and intangible. They can be exhaustive and so cyclical that eventually we find ourselves thinking, “what is the point?” and “why bother trying to understand things that can never be understood?”

I don't have an answer to that question. But I’m not convinced there really needs to be an answer.

Maybe the purpose of thinking about deeply philosophical concepts is not to arrive at a perfectly reasoned answer. Maybe the point is to just be human. After taking Lamberth’s class, I still cannot tell you what faith or authenticity is, but somehow I feel awake and alive to the fact that these concepts in some way give shape to my life. And that’s enough. Through discussing these big concepts, I hope to recreate that feeling for the readers of this column wherever they might be this summer.

My physical journey this summer will take place on the road as I travel across the country as the opening act for Allen Stone and O.A.R. As part of that journey, I am seeing parts of America I never thought I would. What I am seeing is sometimes remarkably beautiful, and other times remarkably ugly. But each sight brings me back to Lamberth’s class and the big concepts discussed. This column will come from that place, from the eyes of a musician travelling all across our country, from someone who is trying hard to chase a feeling and experience life and find a philosophy. In that journey, I hope to discover more of what Professor Lamberth was getting at in the discussion of freedom, faith and authenticity. What drives us as humans? Are we really, especially in America, living the authentic life?

There is a hashtag on Instagram that goes by the title, “live authentic.” The photos tied to this hashtag are posted by people from all over—professional hipsters travelling to Europe, the Rocky Mountains, gloriously rich deserts, and even some enjoying a simple cup of coffee at home. I used to chuckle at the photos’ overly philosophical captions. But something has shifted on the road, and my “faith and authenticity” class is extending. Maybe that is the power and glory of the road and a Harvard education—or maybe, it’s just life. Either way, there is something that travel does to get us outside ourselves and allows us to see the authentic.

One parting thought. In seeking the authentic, I already know that I can’t give any answers to what that is or looks like. I only have mere notions. But I hope that these notions will help make people feel more alive, just like “Faith and Authenticity” did for me. So join me this summer for my notions on the road.

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