Who am I? This isn’t a question that we usually ask unless we are going through times of great stress or struggle. Asking about who you are, typically means something big has called your identity into question. This could be any number of things.
The loss of a loved one or a divorce could prompt the question. In this case your identity was (at least to a significant degree) packaged around your relationship to another person. Now, in their absence you are scrambling to find yourself.
A career change or a loss of some significant activity could call your identity into question, too. Who you are, or were, is so closely associated with how you make your living or something you loved to do that when it’s gone your identity goes with it. Without it, you struggle to retain a sense of yourself.
These are all heavy, difficult, life-changing situations. That it can take this much to unseat our sense of self, speaks to how deep seated our impression of ourself can be. When you ask the question, even when you haven’t had any kind of identity crisis, who you are can be pretty hard to pin down. You might have sense of your identity, but finding it and expressing it is harder to do.
How can you define who and what you are? Are you your activities, relationships, preferences, or circumstances? Are any of these, either by themselves or combined, enough to constitute a person, a self? So when you ask this “Who am I?” what comes out of it? Is it a definite answer, a vague notion, or an open exploration?
Say at every moment, “Who am I?”
Joseph asked Poemen, ‘Tell me how to become a monk.’ He said, ‘If you want to find rest in this life and the next, say at every moment, “Who am I?” and judge no one.’Sayings of the Desert Fathers
I come back to this saying often. It has something undefinable. First of all, Poemen links our question with being non-judgmental. That certainly calls to mind a common phrase: “Who am I to judge?.” Poemen’s advice may bring up a lack of personal authority to judge. On the other hand, that isn’t clearly what this saying is pointing out.
Joseph wants to know how to become a monk. Poemen tells him how to find rest in this life and the next. His advice touches on every moment of experience. If you resonated at all with what I was saying earlier, about big tumultuous moments calling identity into question, this saying from the desert seems to be saying the opposite.
“Who am I?” as an everyday question
The question of identity in the words of Poemen is not only a question for tumultuous moments it is a question for every moment. For Poemen, identity is always a question. Everyday asks who we are.
On one hand, we could say that each moment contributes to a growing definition of ourself. If we want to preserve a sense of self and satisfy a need for continuity from moment to moment, then we would need to do that each and every instant of each and every day. It sounds exhausting, and also pretty close to a standard definition of the self.
On the other hand, if every moment greets you with the question of identity, then identity is never a fixed, settled thing. It is always new. A sense of a continuous self that is always the same might slip away, but what replaces it? How does the world and our place in it change when it isn’t filtered through our idea of ourselves?
Not just you but other people too
This can throw some new light on the “judge no one” portion of the saying as well. If we can’t fix our own identities with a view from “the inside” then we shouldn’t seek to define who anyone else is from “the outside.”
Perhaps this is a sense of what Poemen is pointing out to Joseph about becoming a monk. Identity is not a fixed definition. In the end the question of ourselves is never answered. This achieves an unexpected state.
A never settled sense of identity might sound stressful. It may sound stressful because of the feelings we covered in the beginning. Normally, we may think of a settled well-defined identity as something deeply comforting. It may seem like a safe harbor of stability in an ever-changing world. To lose that, would then seem like a shock.
Is there a cost to this (only perceived) sense of comfort? In order to be one definite unchanging thing, there are several other things that you are not. So as each moment meets this supposedly fixed identity, it needs to spend some amount of energy maintaining itself. In order to keep up its state, it needs to act in a such a way that the identity stays in its place.
Consider some oft used ways of speaking of ourselves. When we react strongly to the prospect of doing some unseemly thing, we might say “I’m not that kind of person.” From the other side, if we acted in some unexpected (often negative) way, someone else may call us back to ourselves by saying “That isn’t like you.” We may even try to defend ourselves in face of accusations by saying apologetically that we were acting “out of character.” We so see ourselves as definite identities with certain qualities as opposed to others.
A break from yourself
Losing that, can seem like a blow, we had something, we were something, if we aren’t that, what are we? Perhaps something more open can emerge. An open view of life and our place within it comes with a psychological benefit. Since I am not a psychologist, it wouldn’t be a great idea for me to speak too much of that. However, there is a strong theme within some spiritual writings, though, that introduce a distance between a deeper sense of personhood and our sense of a fixed individual identity.
A break between a deeper sense of self and an unchanging personal sense of self comes when something new arrives. In some spiritual writings, The word ‘perfect’ describes this new state. Though, it may not be the kind of perfection you think.
No one can ever be perfect
Sure, we all make mistakes. But no one can ever be perfect, comes from a different understanding of the word perfect. This kind of perfect is not synonymous with flawless but whole.
When the perfect comes, that is, when it is understood, then what is in part, that is creatureliness, createdness, selfishness, selfhood, all that is me, must be totally rejected and regarded as nothing. As long as one holds and hangs on to any of this, the perfect is still not understood.Theologia Germanica, Chapter 1 (emphasis mine)
In the opening chapter of the Theologia Germanica, the anonymous author lays out the relationship between the that which is perfect that which is in part. The author is expanding on a quotation of Paul from the first letter to the Corinthians. “When the perfect comes, then one destroys the imperfect and what is in part” (1 Corinthians 13:10)
This begins a work that is devoted to a good way to live, though in many respects it sounds strange and foreign to hear. There is a definite theological tradition to looking down on selfhood. This is the tradition of defining sin as the tendency of a person to be curved in on themselves.
A self looking at itself
The Theologia is definitely in this tradition. Some argue that Martin Luther, who also held this view about sin, was inspired by the Theologia on this very point (as well as Augustine). In the case of the Theologia, the importance is not just that I as an ‘I’ am too focused on me and not focused on God or others. It is concerned about the fact that this is ‘I’ is separating itself at all.
In the one case, there is a self-oriented way of looking at being curved in on oneself, where there is a definite self and a definite identity, which is pointed toward itself and not toward others. (NOTE: I don’t mean for this to be a description of the theological tradition, but what seems to be a common conceptualization that arises from this theological tradition) The problem then is that the definite self is looking the wrong way, “in” rather than “out.”
In the case of the Theologia, being curved in on oneself is more a matter of seeking to preserve selfhood as something distinct from the whole. The Theologia tempers this to some extent. One way the Theologia tempers this is to use qualifiers for renouncing the self. These are qualifiers such as, “insofar as it is possible” to renounce the self. Further, it also speaks of the practical purpose of selfhood. So the Theologia, while not encouraging selfhood, sees its purpose. The Theologia rejects the self in order to understand the perfect, which is whole and retains no separation.
Light from a fire not a drop in the ocean
The Theologia goes on to describe an individual person then as light emanating from a fire. If this sounds really odd to you, don’t worry too much, it’s a metaphor, they help. A ray of light coming off of a burning fire emanates and flows from that fire. You can see it, you pick it out and notice it on its own but it has no being apart from the fire from which it flows.
This metaphor is, for the Theologia, how you (and everything else) exist in relation to God. Without God, no being, not you, not any of the other animals, not even the Mona Lisa or Stranger Things. It all has its being in God, and God lives in, with, and under all of those things.
Notice a difference between this and another popular metaphor: a drop in the ocean. If a drop falls into the ocean, it’s gone. That little drop of water is never coming out again, not in any practical, identifiable way. It totally dissolves. A ray of light, you can see that, its still a ray of light even if it has no being apart from its source.
That ray of light from a fire appears apart from the fire emanating from its brightness. In reality, the ray of light is not separate from the fire though. Deep down, everything is this way, a flow of being from God which grounds and creates each thing. You are not the self you maintain, you are part of something more.
“Who am I?” or, “How am I not myself?”
Yet, you have this individual sense of self. How can you reject that? First, I’m not sure you really can. You need to have it, you just don’t need to grasp it and completely identify with it. You need a little space from yourself. How can you get it?
You probably can’t reason your way there. At least, you can’t decide to create space and thusly distance your being from your identity. That would get all tangled up into knots.
One way you could do this is to our question like Poemen suggests in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Ask “Who am I?” in every moment, even (maybe especially) when the matter seems settled. There are other questions you might ask that can do the same thing, so long as you don’t try to answer them.
Asking the question is enough
Another question you could ask is a question from the movie I Heart Huckabees. The question comes from a character played by Jude Law. This man is a little (maybe more than a little) arrogant and vain. Existential detectives, played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, introduce a little doubt into the man’s mind about how genuine he is being, and how much of his behavior goes into maintaining his identity as an important, noteworthy person. When they tell him straightforwardly to “be yourself.” He replies “How am I not myself?” The detectives repeat the question in ever more ponderous tones.
If you claim an identity for yourself, are you being yourself? One way to introduce a little distance between the identity you create, and a deeper sense of who you are could be this little question. How am I not myself? It is important to let the question hang, don’t try to answer it. Instead, you could be like like Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman, just ask again and again. You could even use it in meditation to call yourself back to the here and now when you wake up lost in thought. Ask who am I? Or ask How am I not myself? They both call identity into question, then stay open to how life greets you and how you participate in it.
If you are the churchgoing kind, and you are baptized, remembering your baptism can keep this question open for you. When Martin Luther writes about the benefits the baptism in the Small Catechism, he says that everyday the old should be drown (in water, like baptism, see) and “a new [person] should daily emerge and arise to live before God.”
That newness that Luther describes introduces the same break we mentioned before. Everything that happened yesterday or a moment ago passes by and something new takes its place. What is this new thing? When the new you emerges, who are you now?
This new person who emerges in each day and each moment is the topic of the Theologia Germanica in some ways. The new you is the perfect, but you aren’t you you. You are a light from that fire.
There is not a separate you which is defined as not the other things around. You aren’t your I, me, or mine as the Theologia often describes it. Those are just useful devices for logistics. You’re something else. You’re new.
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