In our world that is built on technology, we can tend to look at ourselves as problems. We imagine ourselves to be an amalgamation of functions and we search for techniques of living that can maximize our functional capacity and contribute to the well working of the whole. Turning to everything under the sun (including religion and spirituality) we try to turn up this dial or adjust that lever so we can increase our satisfaction or minimize our displeasure. In essence, we can be tempted to view ourselves as things – things with problems to be fixed.
We are grasping for wisdom in this viewing. How could we view ourselves as anything else? Do we not find ourselves in a kind of ‘situation’? Is there not a gaping whole in our hearts? Do we not find within ourselves something that needs resolution?
To seek out the answers to these questions as if they are problems to be solved is to say that we have power over them; that we can dispassionately stand back from them, outside of them, at a distance from them. We can’t do that if we want these questions to really sting. These questions and other like them – such as ‘Who am I?’ – are not problems to be solved: they are mysteries to be dived into deeply. We are caught up in them and can’t stand outside of them; they have their power over us; so we are powerless to solve them.
Admit it: you are an absolute mystery to yourself. Left to yourself, you don’t really know who or what you are. No technique or plan for living can solve this for you. The only thing that can show you is a word from without. The only way to make sense of yourself is to let yourself be invaded. Kiko Arguello can offer some insight here:
The word ‘person’ as well as the word ‘personage’ come from the Greek word prosopon, which were the masks that actors wore in the theater to represent their personage. The director of the play in the theater assigns to each actor a role, a character: ‘You will be the prince. You will be the soldier’, and so forth. That is, a mission has been given to each one of us in this life, a role in the play, let us say. Thus, we are persons if we exist for someone else, if someone else gives us a role, a being.
The only way to make sense of ourselves is in a place of ‘mysterious meeting’ with the One who has given us this mask, this role in the play. This is what we call encounter. It is the mysterious touching (the revelation cloaked in mystery) of the source of our identity. It is a knowing that remains mysterious – the juiciest kind of knowing.
We don’t need any more abstractions and techniques for happiness – all of that is a way to make ourselves gods who hold their own destiny in their hands. We need encounter with the One who alone assigns us our role, our personage, our identity in the midst of our mystery. We need to meet the One before whom we can utter with total confidence, “I have no idea who I am, I have no idea what I am – all I know is I am Yours.” This is true peace.
All of this is so important in the spiritual life. Let’s not place our trust in techniques of prayer, of love, of speaking, of living. Of course, life is practical, so we will need these sorts of things. But let’s not reduce ourselves to them, as if our self is something we can see in the mirror. Instead, humbly realizing that we will never really understand ourselves before we die, let’s abandon ourselves to the gaze of He who can reveal to us both our identity and mission (which are the same thing).
Best to end with some words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote this poem (full version here) shortly before his execution in prison during World War II:
Who Am I?…
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!