Japa: Encounter With a Young Cynic

By Okey Ikechukwu

He said he was fed up with life. He also said that the adult population was a fraternity of fraudsters living in denial. Religion and the spiritual did not mean anything to him anymore. “I have seen it all, Sir”, he said with an air of finality. Then he added: “It has to be greener pasture for me outside the country, or death”. 

Chuckling, I assured him that suicide wasn’t such a difficult thing to carry out, if he was serious about it. Then I added: “Should you need assistance, I can use my knowledge of the martial arts to dispatch you to your ancestors with not more than two good blows; administered to where they would do maximum damage and make your demise a sure banker”. He burst out laughing, but quickly pulled himself together.

“I am dead serious, sir”, he said. “I know. It’s just that there are a few things you may wish to take into consideration before you take a final decision”, I replied.

As the discussion progressed, I said that since he was sure of his conclusions about life, and was also sure about the fact that he had nothing new to learn, discover, or live for, he could do what he liked and not bother talking to anyone about it. He stared at me for a while, and was about to say something, but I continued.

“I was once in the same situation as you are at the moment. That was in my time as a youth. At that time, I was sure of how much I understood the world. I was also sure that I had seen it all and did not need to listen to anyone. The only problem was that I had this nagging suspicion that I just might have something more to learn if I looked around me hard enough.

My conclusions about life at any moment may change in the face of new experiences. So, I advised myself to seek more knowledge first. But then it had to be such comprehensive knowledge as would enable me answer most of the very important questions of life”.

He was silent for a while. Then he asked: “What are these important questions of life?

I told him that it all depended on who was asking the questions and what answers he was looking for. For me back then, I was concerned about the meaning of life and similar things. Someone else may have been concerned about how to make as much money as possible, or even how to become the most popular person in his neighbourhood, or his social circles.

It was different for me and I was forced to move from my initial cynicism when it dawned on me that I was still too ignorant, too inexperienced and too insufficiently exposed to conclude with certainty that the world, religion and everything else could go to hell. It was a truly confusing and confounding time: that stage and situation in life that is described by the ancients as the Dark Night of the Soul.

I told the young man that my resolve changed from going about and saying that life was meaningless to quietly seeking insight and personal spiritual deepening. I told him of how I initially loved this statement of Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”, and how I also found it confusing.

Then he asked me what I found confusing about the statement. I explained that my resolve and desire to become my own person did not, at the same time, show me what was right or wrong to do in life. In other words, I still needed to resolve the question of truth and falsehood, based on true knowledge.

There is a difference between wanting to have one’s own values and convictions and being sure that those values and beliefs are correct, or true. That was my dilemma at the time. I can say “This is my authentic self”, but without interrogating that “self”. One is not necessarily right because one has said: “Look I want to be myself and do only what I believe in”.  What if one’s beliefs are wrong and only driven by inherited opinions, peer exposure, and one’s cultural background?

The young man was pensive for a while, after the above observations. Then he asked: “What does it mean to be authentic and real?

In response, I referred him to a section of an article which appeared on this page two years ago, under the title, “The Call for Authenticity”; wherein it was said: “The simple issue here is about reality and illusion, truth and falsehood. criminality and good behaviour. To be authentic is to be real. An authentic wooden chair is different from a fake plastic chair that is given a coat of paint in order to pass it off as a wooden chair. A person is said to be authentic when he is what he claims to be at any particular time, and completely so. To be inauthentic, on the other hand, is to have your identity, values, statements and avowed beliefs contrived to present “what is not” as “what is”. It boils down to the absence of any true identity. A chimerical being. The “Not this” that claims to be a “this”.

He paused for a while and then asked: “So, what are the essential attributes of an inauthentic person?

Again, I read from another section of the aforementioned article, thus: “The inauthentic person will rather strive to create an illusion and present same as truth, than take steps to remedy a perceived lack. It is all a question of doing everything possible to ensure that popular opinion and made-up reality create a shroud for the non-being to hide inside and masquerade an identity”.

“But my worries, as well as my decision to do something about my life, must be seen and taken as clear signs of Authenticity. Don’t you agree? He asked me.

“In a manner of speaking, yes” I replied. Then I drew his attention to yet another section of the two-year old article under reference here. “When an inauthentic person makes statements, or claims, about right, wrong, etc., it is all likely to be grounded on assumptions, expectations, views and ideas whose prevalence is mistaken for indubitability. Personal conviction is rarely ever part of the equation. Such a person will say ‘I know’, but will not bother to ask what it means ‘to know’. While one person will say ‘I know’ and mean ‘Mr. X told me…’, another will say he knows while he means ‘It is generally said and believed that…’, or even ‘I have the impression that.. ’. See?

“Tell me, sir,  is it possible for one to know if one is the victim of an inauthentic life? He queried. “Listen to this”, I said; as I read out once again: “The victim of an inauthentic life may not be aware of his predicament at all. He will be absorbed in his everyday concerns, feeling quite important and indispensable amidst it all. Yet he is dispensable in every sense of the word, without the world being the worse for it”.

I continued: “What the inauthentic person takes himself to be is very often the agglomeration of claims, conjectures, flatteries and opinions put out by himself and his ‘factory workers’; as he sits in the conventional boat of his environment, his financial status and what is generally called public opinion”. And that is why  what is said by a misguided person or public can never habour the truth?

“So, an inauthentic person cannot really speak of truth or know, as such?” He asked, almost inaudibly. I replied, quoting a paragraph in the article I mentioned earlier , where it was pointed out that the inauthentic person will rather be saying “What will my people think of such a thing”. His nakedness is there beneath the perfectly imaginary clothing of artifice. But it is precisely this artifice that is being marketed as reality, in the firm belief that all will be well in the end”.

“But this your inauthentic person is not under any visible compulsion, so where is the fear coming from? He queried, looking quite perplexed.

The response came thus: “Yet he seems to be the victim of some kind of ethereal tyranny, as he falters and stabilizes involuntarily. He is always afraid of what people would say if he did this, or failed to do that. He is worried that they may consider him foolish, unserious, etc.

“Yes! But who is this “they”? The young man asked.

I replied that this amorphous “they” cannot be individualized, since it does not really refer to this person, or to that person. “It does not even refer to all the people put together; or to everyone except me. It is not something like a universal subject from which the individual can be abstracted, no! But there it is! “They” want this and not that!

“And I ask again, sir, how does this differ remarkably from the reflexes of your authentic person?” Was the next question.

This was the reponse, as drawn from three paragraphs in the article: “Unlike the authentic self which has taken hold of itself, and which consciously determines its own possibilities, a “they” self is not localized. That is why it is true to say that to have your day-to-day life defined by the ‘they’ is to have all your genuine possibilities annulled; because your life is dispersed into undefined channels, as you wallow in the anonymity of collectivism. When an inauthentic person says “I”, he actually means “the others, whose ways prescribe mine”. Pitiful, is it not? That the amorphous group, the self-enclosed homogenous group, with its unthinking rhetoric, buries personal volition.

If you doubt that the inauthentic person unconsciously, and often totally, depends on the “they”, watch out for the constant care he takes to see how he differs from others; and whether that difference is one that should be maintained or evened out; whether he is lagging and needs to catch up, and whether he has some advantages he must strive to maintain. It is a desperate struggle for a life defined by average everydayness. A life lived with very little self-possession. 

This is how the tyranny of the “they” unobtrusively robs people of their individuality. The choices about pleasure and displeasure are dictated by the prevailing preferences. It just happens to be “the done thing”. Thus, does true knowledge get undermined and undervalued. Nobody then needs to justify anything he says or believes, other than by saying that everyone is in the same boat. Thus, you find people strutting about as leaders, statesmen, chieftains, influencers, on air personalities, etc., either after they have held public office, or because they have read a few books and talked a lot”.

“But it will all ruin any form of genuineness”, he said in dismay.

I answered in the affirmative, and continued thus: “It is sometimes in this way that the impetus to free thinking and independent enquiry is either dampened, or extinguished completely for many people. That is because ‘they’ articulate the referential context of the significance of everything. Thus, it gets spread around that there is no need to be different. Evasion of self and ignorant presumption become the norm. “Just drift along”. Do not make a nuisance of yourself, by raking up issues that will make people think, reflect, or ask questions. As Martin Buber said: “Having become uneager and inept for such living intercourse that opens up a world, they have imprisoned the person in history and his speech in a library”.

“Hmmm”, he heaved; his shoulders sinking a little lower. Then he seemed to straighten up a bit from within. I said nothing. He heaved again and then said he had a lot to think about. I nodded in agreement.

I ended my exchange with the young man thus: “Anyone who thinks, or says, that many Nigerians are not either confused, suffering or simply not sure whether they are sane or not is living with his eyes closed. Anyone who is not aware that every step, and decision, he makes in life could aid or abort his purpose in a particular earth life should wake up to that fact. Look at the life of many great men and women, and also look at history, before you decide your next steps in life”.


Anyone who thinks, or says, that many Nigerians are not either confused, suffering or simply not sure whether they are sane or not is living with his eyes closed. Anyone who is not aware that every step, and decision, he makes in life could aid or abort his purpose in a particular earth life should wake up to that fact..

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