A few weeks before her mother died, my wife Pam discovered that her mother had been married—and divorced—before she met and married Pam’s father. It was a shock to Pam because, as an only child, she wondered how her mother could have withheld the story of her life. And then, of course, in the light of that revelation other unexplained events began to suggest perhaps a different story. What else?, Pam wondered. What else did she withhold from me?
After the shock, it was easy to understand how a woman in 1950’s Alabama would have felt helpless and ashamed, how a Christian woman who believed that divorce was a sin would not have been able to tell anyone the truth. And yet there was still, for Pam, a sense of loss, a yearning for what might have been if her mother had been able to present her complete self to her only child.
It isn’t possible to fully present ourselves to others because, I believe, we are not fully aware of who we really are. It takes profound self-knowledge to enable profound self-revelation. I can’t tell you who I am if I’m not really even sure myself.
The reason we’re not sure—even after forty or fifty years—is that we have buried certain things, and told a slightly different story for so long that we have begun to believe it ourselves. We cannot bear the thought of actually being the person we see inside. It always happens that in order to fool others we must deceive ourselves.
The first task of the spiritual life is to know yourself. We’ve all been told how crucial it is to love ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to offer a hand of blessing and understanding to the poor little self, hiding in the core of our hearts. But we all say the same thing: That’s selfish. I should love others first, God first. It’s not about me. Which ends up being a very righteous-looking cover for a life of continued self-deception. If the goal is to give my life away, I have to have a real life to give. People can sense when the “life” we’re giving them isn’t quite real. Why would we think God is any less wise, and any less disappointed?
Question for Today:
Are you the person you say you are?
How can you use your prayer time to come deeper into a knowledge of yourself?
Question #13 “What is Jesus’ ‘theory of change’?’” comes Thursday March 23.
I wonder if it’s a larger version of the surprise we felt as children when we saw a teacher, doctor, or other person outside of their expected location, attire, and role. We squeeze ourselves into a smaller, edited version of who we are – and after years of it, we are surprised by the stranger our true self is. Thanks, David.
David Anderson says
That’s a good analogy.
Matt Edwards says
That is a doozie of a question. And holy mackeral on Pam’s Mom, I’d say I can’t believe she did that but who am I kidding? I am way too insecure to let other people see who I really am. My guess is it’s more a question of degree than anyone being able to say they are the person they say they are all the time. Gotta be entertaining for God to watch.
David Anderson says
Definitely a question of degree. Nobody gets to 100%
We are closeted. Or, parts of us are. It’s true that we do it ourselves. We hide out in closets but society builds them, churches, legislatures and schools build them. Your story, Pam’s story, helped me see that this morning. Beneath all the sadness of living a lie is the injustice that makes it a must
David Anderson says
So true–so definitely true. Yet I also see the aspect –it is people who are able to accept themselves and not be cowed, these are the people who walk out of those closets and force institutional and social change. To your point, though, when we see this happening–someone bravely walking into freedom and blessing–our task it to get behind them.
Susie Middleton says
An excellent question. I’d say it’s the central question of our lives! As much as I think I (now) know myself and honestly represent that, I still have plenty of flashes where I see something about myself that I prefer to hide. And yes, yikes for Pam on her mother…oy.
My apologies. To answer this question I’m going to take the long way around the barn.
Who hasn’t at some point in their existence as a human being, wondered about who or what they really are? Also, some individuals might have the occasion at various times to be wondering where they are and why they are. You know, when you think about it, wondering about who or what one really is, is sort of an odd thing to be wondering about. After all, once a baby human is born, and as their conscious awareness extends to include more and more of the environment they’re in, they experience lots of other humans informing them who they are (their name), what they are (girl, boy, daughter, son, cousin, aunt, uncle, etc.), where they are (their house, town, country…), so why would anyone have cause to wonder who or what they really are? To wonder about these things indicates that the person wondering, for some unknown reason, is not fully accepting the identity they’ve been given and told they are. What interests me is why would a person not fully accept the identity they’ve been given and time and time again are told they are, since the moment of their birth (perhaps even before their birth)? Is this not a bit odd?
I must say that I am one of those individuals that have, throughout my existence as a human being, continually wondered about who and what I really am. In my wondering about this over the years there have been phases where the emphasis was on who I really am, and at other times the emphasis was on what I really am. And yes, I was also wondering where and why I am but those questions were secondary. Eventually, I decided that what I am not who I am was the question to focus on.
I suppose those of us who, for whatever the reason, did not or do not fully accept our given identities arrive at this nonacceptance of identity in a variety of ways. For me, what catapulted me into this state of mind was what seemed to be a simple little prayer. It was a popular prayer that has many versions, of which my mom taught me one (that’s all I could handle). I’m sure my mother had absolutely no idea that this cute little prayer she taught me, when I was three or four years old, would soon entangle me in a most perplexing confusion of identity. A confusion that would become the “rub” that has markedly influenced the trajectory of this identity’s journey to death. That noted, thankfully the confusion was finite.
The prayer: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take. Amen.
I remember a moment when I was five or maybe six years old and had been tucked into bed for the night. As often was the case when I was a kid, I was wide awake but felt it was my duty to go to sleep. My mother had the importance of sleep quite elevated and her ideas about the quantity of sleep myself and my brother were to get were more than a little rigid. To get myself to sleep I recall that many times I would imagine sheep jumping over a fence and as they jumped, I would count them. This is a technique I had learned from watching cartoons on TV.
The typical ritual that I was taught to do before climbing into bed, was to kneel down by the side of the bed with eyes closed and hands pressed together and say my prayer (the one cited above). This night that I’m remembering, though, was different. For on this particular night, instead of counting sheep, I started to examine what I was saying when I said my prayer. And the more I examined, the more confused I became.
As I was reciting the prayer, I was stating that, I have a soul, I’m not one. I’m something else. Furthermore, I was stating that I can die but my soul can be taken and kept by the Lord. And if I do die, I want the Lord to take my soul. I also want the Lord to keep my soul. Now the questions come…Can the Lord keep my soul without taking it? Why do I want the Lord to keep my soul? What’s the Lord going to keep it for? Why do I have a soul? How can it be taken? Where is it? Is it on me or in me? What the heck is a soul anyway? Why do I die, and it doesn’t? Am I going to die in my sleep? Is the “me” my body? Another thing…who or what is the Lord? Is the Lord the same as the God that knows everything I do? My mom tells me that I’m saying my prayer to God, she hasn’t ever said I’m praying to the Lord. Like a pin ball machine that “tilts” when it’s had too much, I recall tilting that night. Once these questions surfaced, though, I returned to ponder them again and again.
Note: It’s odd to me that I don’t have a memory of asking my mother to answer all these questions I had about me, I, the soul, death, the Lord, God, etc. but I don’t. I can’t imagine my not asking her about this but, for some reason, I have not been able to access that memory.
Okay. I made it around the barn (it’s a big barn) and have arrived at my answer to your question David.
No. I am not the person that I say I am. Indeed, I’m not a person at all. I am an eternal Soul. The person known as Monte is a compilation of beliefs, attitudes, attributes, opinions, judgements, conclusions, experiences, dreams, goals, emotions, stories from the past, desires, hopes and fears for the future and thoughts about anything and everything. All these components and more are housed in and expressed through a physical body that, like everything else in the physical universe, is transitory.