Who am I? It is a profound question, except when you are playing it as an ice-breaker game. Then a famous name is affixed to your forehead, and you guess your identity by asking yes-or-no questions of the other participants. Typically you narrow down the attributes that the name carries. Am I a fictional character? An athlete? Am I on television? Am I still alive?
Strange thing is, life demands a similar task of us: finding out who we truly are, beyond the names that we have been given or chosen. We might presume that our truest identity is hidden deep within ourselves, but it is probably much closer to the surface than we suspect. In fact, others can aid us in finding ourselves.
Each of us carries a self-image, and we presume that is who we are, deep within ourselves. For some, it is a rather inflated notion of self-esteem. For others, it is just the opposite. And for most, a curious and confounding mix of the two. Is it possible to go deeper than that?
What we want of the world tells us more about who we are than the image we fashion in our imaginations.
St. Thomas Aquinas is very helpful on this point. In his consideration of what makes an act moral or immoral, he writes:
Et ideo secundum delectationem voluntatis humanae, praecipue iudicatur homo bonus vel malus; est enim bonus et virtuosus qui gaudet in operibus virtutum; malus autem qui in operibus malis (Summa Theologica, I-II, 34, a5).
Peter Kreeft’s succinct paraphrase could not be more apt: “The things we love tell us what we are.”
St. Thomas is suggesting that what we want of the world, our desires and interests, tell us more about who we are than the images of ourselves, which we fashion in our imaginations. When Solomon was offered a choice, he knew that, for him, wisdom mattered most.
“The things we love tell us what we are.”
To see what it is that you want of the world, ask yourself questions such as these: What pursuit gets most of my time? Why? What tends to be my primary cause of anxiety? What do I enjoy doing when I able to choose my activity? Reading? Exercise? Time with loved ones?
A wife and mother may well find that her children and husband occupy her time, her energies, her hopes and her worries. Being wife and mother is who she most deeply is, even if career comes a close second. Are you a young person, deciding what to do with your life? What do you already love? Infatuations pass. True loves do not.
If money—earning, saving and spending it—consumes your waking hours and even robs your sleep, you are probably going to have great trouble with that “eye of the needle.”
And here is where life mirrors the game. Again, we might presume that we know what we want of the world, but asking others to describe us might be very illuminating. Of course, sometimes they offer those insights without being asked. Someone says, you do love your children, don’t you? Or, you never stop working, do you?
Of course, once you know who you are by asking what you love, there is one more Gospel question that desperately needs be posed: Is this a pearl of great price? Is it worth my life? You have to ask, because life expends itself on its desires, even if they are not acknowledged.
Readings: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 Romans 8:28-30 Matthew 13:44-52