Summary: We spend so much of our lives unsure of the answer to this question. If I don’t know who I am, then what I stand for and what I believe in are easily swayed by circumstances. Knowing who I am is critical to getting through life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
Who am I? … We spend so much of our lives unsure of the answer to this simple question. We look at parts of our environment and try to piece them together as some way to describe ourselves, but we usually are unable to really answer the question, “Who am I?” accurately.
If I don’t know who I am, then what I stand for and what I believe in can be easily swayed by circumstances. Therefore, knowing who I am is critical to helping me get through this life.
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest who spent his life struggling with this issue. He taught at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale before realizing his calling to serve mentally handicapped adults.
During this later part of his life, he noticed that we usually answer the question “Who am I?” based on three things.
The First is: “I am what I do.”
I’m a doctor. I’m an accountant. I’m a ditch digger. We even assign values to certain jobs, and transfer those values to the persons doing those jobs, don’t we? We’re more impressed when we’re introduced to a doctor than we are when introduced to a ditch digger. An admiral is more impressive to us than an ensign. Likewise a senior vice-president of a company draws our interest more than the mail clerk of the same company. It’s also one of the first things we want to know about someone when we meet them.
And even if we won’t admit it out loud, don’t we tend to hope our daughters marry a doctor or lawyer instead of a ditch digger or garbage man?
Some jobs give people power over other people, but that doesn’t make them better than the people they supervise. But we often forget that.
A while ago, the sewer line under our neighbor’s front yard ruptured. A section of pipe and the cap needed replacing, along with some other work, and it was all underground.
When their doorbell rang, they were quite happy to see a ditch digger standing at their door, and would have been very unimpressed by a doctor, unless the doctor was holding a shovel in his hand.
The Second factor is: “I Am What I Have.”
We spend our lives chasing material things, like cars, money, big houses. And we often think of success as getting more things than everyone else has. But the satisfaction is temporary. No matter how much we get, we still want more. And every step of the way, we hope others will notice the cool stuff we’ve got.
In fact, we often judge people’s opinions by how wealthy they are. The Hollywood elite has tremendous amounts of material possessions, and also some of the goofiest opinions on many issues, yet many people give credence to their ideas solely because they are wealthy. Many of the celebrities we see extolling their views are operating way outside their field of expertise. They are often good actors, musicians, or comedians, but they have little or no real, in-depth knowledge of the subject matter they discuss publicly. Subjects that most people spend years studying in order to understand them competently are discussed by celebrities whose comments are quoted as authoritative.
Think about it. If any of us offered our opinion to the media about an issue like stem-cell research, military strategy, or treatment of diseases, we would be asked for credentials showing that we’re subject matter experts in the area. We would need to prove that we’re scientists, military officers, or doctors, before any reporter would take us seriously. Yet think of how many times you’ve heard some celebrity talk about these topics without being asked what makes them qualified.
We assume that wealth imbues us with expertise in other areas despite all the evidence to the contrary.
The Third thing is: “I Am What People Say About Me.”
We tend to believe what people say about us. There’s a saying public relations: “Don’t believe your own PR.” We see it all the time though in our celebrity-obsessed culture. People are given almost god-like status because because of their looks, musical or acting ability, or popularity at the moment. They are lifted to the top of the social ladder, and often plummet back to earth when that popularity fades. That sudden stop is often devastating.
In ancient Rome, military commanders who had been victorious in battle, killing at least 5,000 enemy troops, were honored publicly in a huge civil and religious ceremony called a Roman Triumph. The “triumphator,” as he was called, was paraded through the city ahead of his troops. In front of him were the chiefs of the conquered peoples, who were followed by wagons of gold, jewels, and other spoils of war. The products of his great victory were directly in front of his eyes throughout the parade.