The Self, Finally

I wish I could explain why it oppressed me to tell about myself, but so it was, and I didn’t know what to say. . . . That I had ruined the original piece of goods issued to me and was traveling to find a remedy? Or that I had read somewhere that the forgiveness of sins was perpetual but with typical carelessness had lost the book? — Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

I have often been mistaken for someone else. It no longer surprises me—’I wonder who we are today?’ I’ve been taken for a guy named Clif (yes, only one “f”), a Bill, a Kris, and my favorite—Grosboll. On that occasion I was stopped by a red-faced young man in the campus store who hissed through clenched teeth about a woman dear to him whose honor had been besmirched. He asked me what I had to say for myself. I said I didn’t have much to say but neither did I  know the lady in question. “What?” he yelped, straightening up. “Aren’t you Grosboll?” I had to admit I was not. “Oh,” he mumbled, “sorry about that.”

Once a balding man at the Y called me Dan, did the double-take and then apologized. When I laughed and said something about having a generic face he said, “Actually, I think it’s the hair, sir,” and returned to his newspaper. I checked the mirror, but I’m still not sure what he meant. Yet, there are some advantages to having a face that people think they know, however mistakenly. I can assume a new identity, if only for a few seconds; I can imagine what this named person might be like; and I may once again ask myself who I think I am. It’s a question I’ve been turning over and over in my hand most of my life, like a stone that is smooth to the touch but has a rough patch somewhere on it.

We can’t help but wonder who we are. Walter Truett Anderson writes in The Future of the Self that the modern view of the self as a distinct person, separate and bounded from other beings, is threatened in the postmodern age. At the same time he points out that such a view is not the norm in much of the non-Western world. “They do not think of themselves as unique, but rather as more or less identical to others of their kind; and they do not think of themselves as neatly integrated, but rather as invaded by strange spirits and forces that may pull them in many different directions.”

The fact that we here in the West agonize over this, that we spend ourselves trying to find ourselves, probably marks us as unique in the world. Most people don’t have the leisure to worry about such things, let alone fret about their social standing. That our self-identity, our persona, is an amalgam of biology and culture is fascinating to us but may not occur to millions of people who are just trying to wear their face for yet another day.

But the question, ‘Who am I?’ stops many in their tracks no matter the century. Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ I don’t think it was a rhetorical question. I think he really wanted to know. His own quest to understand who he was had driven him into the wilderness to fight the demons of fear, pride, and power; he had emerged stronger, lighter, more pliable, but God-haunted. In everything he did he could not help but gauge the reaction of the crowds around him. On a good day, after healing and comforting, calling and casting out, delivering up and drawing in, he must have thought, ‘This is who I am: the one who is to serve without ceasing. I can do this, but only through the Father.’ On a bad day, with some around him burning with jealousy and others throwing themselves at him, he may have longed for a clear, cool night of stars and prayer.

Anderson traces the idea of the self through history, pointing out that individuality is a fairly recent invention, as is the notion of privacy. For most of human history people took for granted that the space around them was not exclusively their own nor was their self separate from others. That’s not to say that they couldn’t see where their bodies ended and another’s began; it was rather that they understood themselves to be a part of the whole.

It’s ironic that our media-produced mass societies sweep us into any number of demographic groups, but without a sense of belonging. We think we have a persistent self that anyone could pull out of a lineup at will, yet the feedback we need from others is missing or sometimes mocking. Are we a collection of selves, bonded by a body, or do we live our lives exposed “like a candle in the wind,” constantly at risk of losing ourselves?

I was taught as a child to put Jesus first, others second, and yourself last. That would bring you joy and teach you a selfless way of life. It’s a good teaching, far more sophisticated than its simplistic approach would suggest. The wisdom is in the order—and the purpose. Like a few other profoundly important things in life discovering who we are cannot be approached directly. We find out who we are by doing other things: truly worshiping God by living truthfully in this world, listening more than speaking, trying to understand before putting in the knife, learning reverence for the world. Then, in those moments when we cross some line into a new territory of courage we might catch a glimpse of ourselves as we run to catch up, thinking ‘That’s the kind of person I’d like to be.’

The epigram is from Saul Bellow’s novel, Henderson the Rain King, a story about a brusque, volatile, ham-fisted millionaire who travels the world in search of a cure for his empty soul. Something in him cries out, ‘I want! I want! I want!,’ and it will not be stilled until it’s filled. Read the book. It’s a picaresque journey of faith, so I like to believe. In the end Henderson  does find himself, the true self that remains when the dross is burned away. It was there all along, of course, visible only at the edges of a vision that draws the eye forward.

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