Authenticity – A Lecture on Fearlessly Being Who You Are

It happened again.

Every so often I will dig out some old music and when I hear it I get the uncontrollable shakes to play my guitar(s) “just like _________ on the record.” Typically that is John Denver, but it could also be Noel “Paul” Stookey or some other musician. Sometimes I even think I can sing like Harold Reid (the bass singer for the Statler Brothers) or Charley Pride or the aforementioned John Denver or the aforementioned Noel Stookey. It drives me crazy. I pull out my guitar.

And it just does not work. It. Does. Not. Work.

It hit me this morning just why it does not work. There are a number of technical reasons, of which I will list a few. But there is a really bad reason why it does not work, and an even much worse, awful reason why it does not work. More on that in a moment.

Technically why is does not work is because no two people are ever exactly alike. Therefore, the desire to sing, or to play, “exactly” like someone else is just doomed from the get-go. There are just far too many variables to match in order to do anything “just like” someone else.

The bad reason why it is wrong to want to do something “just like” someone else is that it really diminishes who you are as an individual. It is basically saying, “I am personally no good (or at least far sub-average), but if I could just sing/play/do something ‘just like’ so-and-so, then I would be worthy.” I know that most of us would tend to play that down, but it is really true. We tend to think that aspiring to the heights that someone else has climbed is validation – and to a degree it might be. But, ultimately its is still just trying to be where someone else already is, to achieve what they have achieved. It is not about personal achievement or personal accomplishment. I know that is a very fine line, but if you stop and consider it for a moment you will see that imitation is not true accomplishment, in the sense of individuality.

But, really, what is for me the absolute worst reason why being “just like” someone never works is that it is a profound denigration of the other person’s giftedness. Let me explain with a couple of examples.

What would it say if I, below average to low average guitar player, could suddenly (or even eventually) play like John Denver? What is it, exactly, that draws me to his music? One, his guitar playing artistry is, quite honestly, beyond compare. Most of his playing is disarmingly simple, and can be duplicated readily enough (I even had the opening riff to “Rocky Mountain High” down for a brief period.) However, it is not just the technique that makes his playing unique. During most verses his playing is uncomplicated, but in-between verses or in bridges his playing can be extraordinarily complex. But, it is not just the guitar – it is also the lyrics. The guitar ascends with phrases that call us to ascend, and moderate when the lyrics get a little melancholy. His vocal range is unique as well, and the guitar accompaniment and the lyrics are designed to elevate that vocal range. But, it does not stop there – his ability to play an audience is just as critical as his ability to play an instrument or use his voice. Yet another piece, his band members loved playing with him because he allowed them to express their individuality. So, what makes me want to play like JD? The entire package, not just one tiny little piece. Denver himself put into words on a number of occasions what I am aiming for here – he never really took credit for writing his songs. The way he put it, he was just there when the song came floating by, and he was the lucky one who got to write it down, “I had nothing to do with it” he would say.

I can’t, and I don’t really want to after all, be “just like” John Denver, because when all is said and done that would be a blight on my memory of John Denver. It was the gift that John Denver received that made him who he was, and I never want to claim his gift. It was his, and only his.

As a student-in-training-to-be-a-preacher I always wanted to preach like Harvey Porter. I have said this on numerous occasions. From a preaching perspective, Harvey Porter was my idol. I wanted to think like Harvey, to have a command of Greek like Harvey, to be able to combine humor and emotion like Harvey, to be able to speak to thousands at lectureships and to write books and to visit the Holy Land and to be invited to be on university boards of trustees and to be recognized everywhere I went just like Harvey Porter. I think that is a quite common aspiration – young men shape and fashion their dreams to fit their personal hero, be it an athlete or a teacher or a preacher or a fireman or a policeman or a doctor or – the list goes on forever. But, once again, what would I have accomplished if I could have achieved everything I set out to do? I would not have been Harvey – there could never be another Harvey Porter. But, I would not have been myself, either. I would have been a cheap imitation of someone. I would have actually been denigrating, or insulting, Harvey’s true value. I can honor Harvey Porter more completely by being who I am, and in striving to follow the Lord of Harvey’s life.

You see, the real gift, the real blessing, of listening to John Denver or the Statler Brothers or Peter Paul and Mary or in sitting at the feet of Harvey Porter is not the inspiration to play just like John Denver or sing like Harold Reid or preach like Harvey Porter. The real gift is their inspiration to become what you are especially gifted to become. Don’t aspire to play just like your favorite musician, aspire to take what has inspired you through them and then make it your own. Sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn the guitar, but the goal should be to let the guitar become the living, breathing instrument that it can be, not to force it into a box that says, “John Denver” or “Paul Stookey” or “Chet Atkins.” Learn to sing, but don’t limit your accomplishments to a list that is limited to Harold Reid or Charley Pride or C.W. McCall. Let your voice be your voice, and in so doing you will honor your favorite hero more than any other gift you can give.

I wish I could have learned this lesson back when I was a teenager, or a young adult at the very least. Maybe I would not have listened even if someone had given me this article to read. I was (am still?) pretty hard headed. But, I think it is good I finally learned it anyway. I can listen to my records and cds of John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Charley Pride and many, many others with less agitation now. Not complete contentment, because those “I want to play/sing just like _________” yearnings are still deep within me. But, I can admire and be amazed by their artistry with perhaps just a little less jealousy now. And, perhaps just a little more maturity that can say, “Wow, I sure am glad they used their own gifts, instead of trying to be just like someone I never heard of.”

Honor your heroes to be sure. Just be sure to do so by becoming the best you can be. You will ultimately achieve far more, and be blessed with a far greater peace.

 

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “Authenticity – A Lecture on Fearlessly Being Who You Are”

  1. Some real wisdom, Paul! Would that we could realize it when we are young, just as you said.
    I appreciate you for your work and am grateful to call you “my friend,” because of Susan and your precious daughter, also!

    Like

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