Sunday, January 07, 2018

Who are you?

A few days ago, in this prayer guide from, the following paragraph appeared:
Just one question to think about today, a question asked in this passage: “Who are you?” – not as easy a question to answer as it might seem. Imagine that you have been asked that question; what words would you find to answer? “Who are you?”
The passage was from John 1, where priests and Levites quizzed John the baptizer.

With a decade at most before retirement, I’m finding the question a lot more interesting. A passage from Wendy M. Wright’s Exploring Spiritual Guidance (Nashville, TN: Upper Room, 2006; ISBN 0-8358-9834-2) came to mind. It doesn't explicitly ask that question, but shows some of the wrong ways I sometimes answer it:

A career woman I know once spent a month at a L’Arche community farm. L’Arche is an organization that brings together persons with mental challenges and persons without such challenges into a shared life experience. This woman went with the idea of helping others, fulfilling her Christian duty by using her gifts on behalf of less fortunate persons. Her experience was exactly the reverse. A city girl, she found herself quite helpless on a farm. She had to be constantly tutored in the most gentle and compassionate way by those she had imagined she would serve. As this woman gradually came to accept her dependence on others, she became aware of all the subtle ways she had learned over the years to mask her neediness. Always having to look good was one way. Always having the right answer was another. Always being competent was a third. She came to see that the tables had turned. The very persons she came to help were helping her. They were her spiritual mentors in the way of God’s love and the dignity of each human life. (56)
Paraphrasing, three wrong answers to “Who am I?” are:
  • The one who always looks good (I take this to mean reputation rather than beauty because, well…)
  • The one with the right answer
  • The competent one

Now there’s nothing wrong (I hope!) with wanting to look good, or wanting to have the right answer (rather than wrong ones), or wanting to be competent (rather than…?). Reputation, knowledge and competence are good servants but they make poor masters. If we find ourselves in a place where reputation is useless (as Nouwen did at L’Arche), where questions have no real answers, where there is no human competence—what do we do then?

I had lunch lately with an old friend, a very smart guy, a former professor and consultant. We worked together on and off from the ’80s into the early 2000s. A while ago, the executives who knew him all retired, and he's left without (as he put it) “interesting problems to solve.” I look at him and see my future.

Well, part of it, anyway. The part about no interesting problems to solve, that’s not a happy prospect. It’s not just the lack of problems, but the lack of people who are interested in whether I solve them. Am I interested in getting approval and appreciation? Of course I am! But almost as much, I’m interested in doing something for people, helping them make progress on their goals.

This is one way I know I was never cut out for the monastic life. Regarding that life, Merton wrote in No Man Is an Island:

The human affections do not receive much of their normal gratification in a life of silence and solitude. The almost total lack of self-expression, the frequent inability to “do things for” other people in a visible and tangible way can sometimes be a torture and lead to great frustration. That is why the purely contemplative vocation is not for the immature. One has to be very strong and very solid to live in solitude.
8§18 (p. 155, 2003 B&N edition)
As much of an introvert as I am, I’ll tell you right now I'm not “very strong and very solid” in that way.

Back to the original question, “Who are you?”—the answer, “I’m a software engineer at N--- Inc.” isn’t factually false, but neither is it the right answer. “I’m a husband and father” is more meaningful and enduring, as it’s not contingent on my current employment situation.

As you can see, I struggle a bit with the answer. A Christian-ly correct answer might be, I’m an adopted child of my heavenly father. Now this one is true but also meaningless to a lot of people I know. What does that mean to anyone unfamiliar with the jargon, and what comfort does it bring to me? I mean, God loves me, but (as Judd Hirsch's character says in Ordinary People) “he likes everybody—he’s got no taste.”

The answer I want to be the most true is: I’m a man who’s becoming more compassionate, peaceful, patient, kind, courageous, generous—a man who, when people talk with me, they feel empowered and liked and encouraged and strengthened. Whoa, it just hit me, I mean just at this moment as I type—I know what I want. I want this verse from Isaiah 58 to be true of me:

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.
Isaiah 58:12 RSV

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