A story is told that one night Arthur Schopenhauer, a nineteenth century influential philosopher, sat alone in a park in Germany. Thinking he was a tramp, a security guard approached him and asked roughly, “Who are you?” Schopenhauer then replied, “I wish to God I knew”.
What a difficult question to answer, don’t you think? But whether we
intentionally reflect on this question or not, the pursuit of its answer is intrinsic to human nature. I think there are at least three common ways most of us naturally try to answer the question “who am I?”
Firstly, many of us define ourselves by how much we have. In a society that gives more value to those who have more, we find ourselves constantly pressured to relentlessly acquire more and better things. We easily intertwine our identity with our possessions. As Tracy Chapman would sing:
Consume more than you need
This is the dream
Make you pauper
Or make you queen
I won’t die lonely
I’ll have it all prearranged
A grave that’s deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o’ things
Secondly, for some of us our accomplishments (or lack of them) become the anchor of our identity. I am the post I have at work. I am the degrees I have obtained. I am my level of intellectualism or I am the number of goals achieved.
Nowadays we are also increasingly describing ourselves by the number and the profile of the people we are connected to. The number of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter can determine how valued or important we feel we are. The level of popularity or acceptance we perceive to have in a particular circle of people easily becomes the foundation of our self-esteem.
Nevertheless, Christians believe that our answer to the question “who am I?” ought to originate from another source: the unconditional love of God for us, which is ultimately demonstrated in Jesus. Brennan Manning wisely advises, “define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.” He also asserts, “If I must seek an identity outside of myself, then the accumulation of wealth, power, and honors allures me. Or I may find my center of gravity in interpersonal relationships. [...] when I draw life and meaning from any source other than my belovedness, I am spiritually dead. When God gets relegated to second place behind any bauble or trinket, I have swapped the pearl of great price for painted fragments of glass.”
From which well are we drinking in our journey to define who we are? Possessions, accomplishments or connections undoubtedly have their places in our lives. Yet, I believe, they cannot become substitutes for the only true axis of the identity we were created to have.
“Who am I?” asked Thomas Merton, and he answered, “I am one loved by Christ.” What would our response be?