The Real Me
Who am I? That is a question almost everyone entertains and, perhaps, spends a good deal of time in life figuring out the answer. It is not unusual for us to come up with a few different answers in the process of living our lives. I am confident I would have answered that question differently when I was ten years old than I would today as a relatively mature, older guy.
I know there are some religious traditions that scoff at the idea there is even a real me. For example, Buddhists question whether there can ever be a self or a real me. Of course, we can pretend there is one; we can act as if there is one. In my world of illusion I can have a self-illusion. I am sure there are some psychologists who do not believe there is such a thing as a real me. I am hoping they are not correct.
As a Christian and Quaker, I am captivated by the early Genesis creation account that humans are created in the image and likeness of the Divine One. I value that affirmation and hope in some sense it is true. Along with the early theologians of the Christian Church, I can understand that I have lost the likeness to God. Through sin and other human foibles, I am more unlike God than I am like God. My spiritual pilgrimage is to grow more and more into that likeness. But I never lost the image. Even in the midst of my bad news, the good news remained that I bear the imago Dei---the image of God.
Since I have lost the likeness of God, I wonder if that has not played a role in my quest for the question, who am I? Since I am not like God, I am not sure who I am. At birth we are given a name, but not an identity. Early childhood years find people telling me who I am or giving me identifiable taglines to use to describe my identity. In my case I was a farm boy, a fairly bright guy, a good boy, etc. These became part of my answer to the question, who am I.
But at some point---and I think it was in high school---I became uneasy about these more superficial identity badges. I did not think they were wrong; in many cases, I was all of them. But the were not the real me. And at that point, it is appropriate to say I had an identity crisis. Perhaps calling it a crisis gives it too much drama. There was not much drama; there was a great deal of befuddlement. I simply was not sure who I was!
The real me question has interested me since high school. I like the way the 20th century monk, Thomas Merton, dealt with it. Merton talks a great deal about the “true self.” Merton’s words have become well known to me. “For me,” wrote Merton, “to be a saint is to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” That has been an apt and wonderful way to talk about my journey spiritually through life. It has been a quest to discover my true self and to live out that truth in my world. I hope I am making progress.
Other philosophers, theologians and psychologists have been on the same quest. A recent book given to me by a friend has a whole chapter on this kind of quest. John Neafsey authored a book with a title I very much like: A Sacred Voice is Calling. For Neafsey, there is a link between the Sacred Voice and our discovery of our true self or the real me. One of the points Neafsey deals with is exactly how it is that we discover our true self? How will we know “that’s it?”
Neafsey suggests we will know, in part, by “a felt sense of authenticity.” That resonated with me: if it feels authentic, you are on the right path. Then he quotes William James to make his point. “I have often thought that the best way to define a person’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon them, they felt most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘This is the real me.’” Again that resonated with me.
Personally, I doubt that anyone can know with absolute certainty “this is the real me.” But I do think we can be very confident that we know it. That confidence will come with a high degree of authenticity. I believe James is correct when he says we will feel most deeply and intensely active and alive.
I would add that this sense of the real me will endure over time. This contrasts with a simple mountaintop experience when I tend to feel this deep and intense aliveness. A mountaintop experience is short-term. The real me endures over time. It endures through thick and thin. It can suffer and it exalts. It is not contingent upon my circumstances. It is not conditional.
Likely, I will always be fascinated by the question, who am I? Merton is correct in my opinion: to find myself means I also find God. That is my quest.