A recent article in the science section of the NY Times reveals the mystery of the human person. The opening sentence of James Gorman’s “A Search for Self in a Brain Scan,” begins with: “I knew I wouldn’t find myself in a brain scan” (Jan 6, 2014). The inscrutable question, who am I, remains a constant, even if it is lodged deep within the psyche.
From the Paleolithic period (15,000 B.C.), human beings have explored their relationships with others and from one culture to another. Most striking is a) the attempt to discover the purpose of existence in the face of certain death, and b) the desire for self-expression which bequeaths new discoveries and works of art to the next generation. The Western mind has searched for the answer to self-identity primarily through rational means and intellectual inquiry rather than through faith.
“The unexamined life is a life not worth living,” the sages of Classical Greece were fond of repeating (480-146 BC). Who of us would challenge this dictum? Yet, the daily grind claims our attention and saps our energies. There is so little time to look inward.
Infants do not start off in full self-consciousness. Still, at an early age, children begin asking some metaphysical questions, such as where did I come from. Often in adolescence, the quest for self-identity is acted out because the boy and girl are stepping out of one stage into another, from childhood into young adulthood. It’s not difficult to understand a mother’s rolling eyes on hearing her excited twelve-year daughter blurt out: “Mom, I’m almost a teenager!”
Peeling off the Onion
Eventually, essential questions rise to the surface. Is the present all there is? Isn’t there something more? Why do I want more than rocks, flowers, and animals? Who am I? How do I feel about who I am? Why am I precisely I? Why do you love me? Why do I love you? If you really knew me, you would love me. “If I am already a riddle, someone owes me a solution,” notes Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Life has a way of weaving certain patterns by reason of personal gifts, circumstances, and personal decisions, wise and foolish. For some, life has been straightforward, perhaps rocky and rugged, but linear. Such is the case with prodigies like Mozart, whose musical life began at the age of four and continued until his death at age thirty-six.
For others, life has been cyclical. In a forty-year reign ending with his death in 1547, Henry VIII changed his wives six times, perhaps thinking: “I shall not keep you long.” Two he had beheaded for adultery. In 1521, Leo X had declared Henry, “Defender of the Faith.” What, if anything, did he later learn about himself as one queen after the other was whisked away to make room for the next?
For still others, life is punctuated by circumstances, often quite negative, that stretch the individual’s ability to grow beyond the present into a better human being. Many have graduated from the ‘school of hard knocks.’ Consider the life and career of Carol Burnett, both of whose parents were alcoholics.
Often dramatic events shape one’s future. Historians note that the hemophiliac condition of the Tsarevich Alexis, born to Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, changed the history of Russia and the world. It was a deciding factor that brought about the Russian Revolution in 1917. Linked to this unseen family tragedy was a series of events that spiraled out of control and inexorably led to the execution of the entire Romanov royal family. Despite a blissful young married life, Nicholas and Alexandra could not have imagined the dissolution of the Russian monarchy. Who can say if, at the end, they were the same persons as they were at the beginning of their married lives?
The direction of Charles Krauthammer’s life was suddenly and irrevocably changed when he severed his spinal cord diving into a pool while studying medicine at Harvard. He graduated with honors in a wheel chair and began specializing in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in a wheel chair. But he changed course. Today, Krauthammer is a leading syndicated columnist whose psychiatrist’s hat serves him well in the nation’s capital.
In the television series, “Downton Abbey,” the life of Lady Mary Crawley is turned on its head with the tragic death of her husband Matthew. She must build a new life out of this great loss. Matthew had changed her from a haughty cold person into one of compassion and depth. Lady Mary the widow is a different person from Lady Mary the wife of Matthew Crawley.
Life can dish up patterns of rejection. This is often the lot of creative people. Artists wait years for that “break” that will bring their gifts to light. Mozart died a pauper. Having insulted Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo and the Viennese aristocracy, he was black-listed. And Franz Schubert sold his lieder for pennies to put food on his table.
On a Journey to Happiness
After spending years hammering out a philosophy of the human person, the late and great Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. offers us valuable insights into the question: who am I. They are summarized below.
First of all, the fact that I exist means not a state but the act of all acts. To be is to be an energy, a dynamic impulse, a restless driving force carrying me forward from within my depths to my full self-achievement. I am an embodied spirit distinct from all others, with memory and imagination, with intellect and will and yet interconnected to the cosmos and to one another. I am actively present. Action follows being. (Agere sequitur esse).
Second, I am a unified and dynamic center of choice, of free self-conscious action on two levels – material and spiritual, in search of the Infinite toward my final trans-worldly goal. In happy amazement, I can experience heart, imagination, feeling, emotion, mood, and eros deep down in my mysterious center.
Third, I am on a journey from potential self-possession to actuality. Each of us lives most intensely within the self. What I say to myself is often more important than what I say to others. Nonetheless, I have the urge to share our own goodness with others and grasp the universe. I am introverted and extroverted.
Fourth, I want to make or do something beautiful, something worthwhile to leave in the world as an expression of who I am.
Fifth, I am limited, poor and rich at the same time. Sixth, the root of all my being – my perfection, is self-communicating love with its unity of beauty, truth, and goodness.
Finally, I am a self-possessing person:
- in-myself through self-consciousness or self-awareness; as self-consciousness that is first touched and loved by another;
- as I-Thou, going out to another and then returning to in-myself;
- as self-determining and self-governing that involves freedom, responsibility, accountability and morality;
- as a person with principles and values.
- as a person who graciously receives from others. (W. Norris Clarke, S.J.: Person and Being)
Do I live to impress or please others, or do I live as my real self – the one inside of me?
Fr. Clarke gives us food for reflection and prayer. Two scriptural passages summarize his thoughts:
1. (God’s beauty is what we reflect.) 2 Cor 3:18f “We, with our unveiled faces reflecting like a mirror the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter, from one glory to the other, as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.” (We are transformed from one glory to another and are made into a godly kind of beauty.)
2. (Live, so that your beauty shines through.) Eph 2:10 “We are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning He meant us to live it.”
The truth is that we live in relationship with God and with self, with others and with circumstances unique to each of us. They are the source and raw material of self-knowledge. Integrating our responses to all four tells us who we are. In prayer and in practice, we gain self-knowledge.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.