The other day I read this piece, Who I’m Meant to Be by Rebecca French, and I guess it’s been gnawing away at the back of my mind ever since. Then Sunday night Anthony woke up around one and I couldn’t resettle him. I changed his diaper. He didn’t go back to sleep. I fetched him some water. He didn’t go back to sleep. Finally I had to go to the bathroom so I left his room for a minute and when I came out of the bathroom I saw him wandering off to the kitchen where he stood and pointed at a box of crackers. So I gave him a cracker and he sat down at the table and nibbled it. Slowly, slowly as I looked in despair at the clock and longed for my bed. Finally, he finished the cracker and agreed he was ready to go back to bed. He gathered his blanket in his arms and climbed off his chair and toddled off to his bedroom where he flopped down onto his bed. I settled in next to him to wait until he fell asleep and while I lay there in the dark my brain began to spin on the question Rebecca’s grandmother asked her and the answers that both of them gave.
The article also echoed a conversation a friend of mine recently hosted on her Facebook page that I read but did not participate in, which has also been niggling at me. I was extremely dissatisfied because I felt like all of the answers provided by both the article and the participants in my friend’s Facebook discussion were only partial answers. They tried to answer the question Who am I? either by looking at the self in terms of their relationships or by looking at the self in terms of jobs that I do—either careers or hobbies—and perhaps by looking at the self in solitude. But none of those answers were really satisfactory because it seemed like they didn’t come close to addressing the deep mystery that is a human person but rather were making a sort of synecdoche, taking the part for the whole.
So how would I answer the question: Who are you? It wouldn’t be a neat sound bite answer. It would have to be an essay at the least because nothing less would even begin to address he question in its true complexity. My mind began to churn and churn and churn and long after Anthony had settled back into a deep sleep and I had sneaked out of his room and back into my own I lay in bed wide awake unable to shut off the words that insisted on spinning themselves out. I even considered briefly getting up to type them out but instead fought to quiet my mind, telling myself there would be time to write it all out today.
Created and Called
Who am I? My first answer, what gets closest to the heart of my sense of identity, is that I am created by God. To steal the lines right out of Bella’s catechism: “To know him and to love him and to serve him in this life, and be happy with Him in the next. I have the deepest sense of being most truly myself when I am aware that I am in the presence of God, when I am aware of being the person he made me to be and when I am trying to be the person he is calling me to be. All of the other parts of my answer are really extended forms of getting at who it is that God made me to be and who he is calling me to be.
I was baptized with the name Melanie Christine. I was confirmed as Rose of Lima. But I believe that God called me by name long before anyone had uttered those names for me. In the dark secret place of the womb before my mother and father knew me, God knew me and loved me into existence. I was made in his image and likeness. And at that moment he knew all of me because while I am in time, God is outside of time and therefore knows the whole span of myself while I can only know a little tiny part of that self. When I received the sacrament of baptism I became his adopted daughter in the fullest sense. And that is very much who I strive to be every day: a daughter of the king.
Lover and Beloved
Now that I think on it further, I am actually a little prickled by the grandmother’s reaction that relationships with other people can’t be the answer to who are you. Perhaps I’m projecting a bit but it seems that attitude—that we should be defined by what we do and what we enjoy doing rather than our relationships—is rooted in the feminist ideology.
But I do define my life primarily by relationships because I think that is how God wants us to define ourselves. After all, God has revealed himself to us primarily in terms of relationships. He is Love and love is dynamic, love is relationships. He is a trinity—three persons in one God—a Father whose love eternally begets a Son, the Son who eternally returns that love and the Spirit who is the love that is poured out between the Father and the Son. If I am made in the image and likeness of God, then I am made to love and to be loved. What higher way can I define myself than in my relationships with others?
I am the daughter of Randall and Patricia. I am the granddaughter of Millie and Addison of Maudie and A.P. I am the sister of Therese and Timothy and Stephen. I am the wife of Domenico. I am the mother of Isabella, Francis, Sophia, Benedict, Anthony and a baby whose name is not yet known to me but who is known and named and cherished by God. Of course those relationships will change. But I do not believe that death ends our relationships because in Christ there is no death. We are all eternally present to him and to each other in the communion of saints. I am just as much Francis’ mother now as I was during those ten brief weeks that Francis grew in my womb. That relationship changed me and made me who I am today. Nor is that relationship over. I believe Francis still knows us and loves us and intercedes for us from heaven. And if Dom were to die tomorrow I would still be connected with him, even if fifty years were to pass, even if I were to remarry. No, these relationships are very much who I am and who I am meant to be and they should not be dismissed so quickly.
However, I will concede that there is a point to be made when we seek to push beyond defining ourselves by our relationships. What do we do, who are we when we are alone, when we find solitude, when those relationships cease to tug on us with daily demands? If tragedy were to strike and, like Job, I were to find myself deprived in one fell swoop of everyone that I loved, I would still be me, of course, irreducible and undeniably me. Of course I would be a me wracked with grief and trying to learn how to cope with the loss of all of those relationships; but there would be a need to learn to live and to be in a new way. What would I turn to then? Is that the question that the grandmother is asking? Well, I would most certainly turn to prayer. And to writing. (As if the two were somehow separable.) Like I said, that primary relationship is with God, who will not abandon me. And writing… writing is one of the gifts he has given me. And it is one of the ways I listen to him, hear his voice speaking to me. The Word in the midst of all these words. But I have other things I do in which I also find God and perhaps find parts of myself—quilting, teaching, walking in the woods and watching living things. And who knows but that a change in life circumstances would bring new relationships and new occupations, would reveal new skills and new hobbies. (I could take up the cello in my fifties and find I am a musician!)
I suppose one way to reframe this question of identity is to look at it as one of vocation. Each of us is called to holiness, to become like God by conforming ourselves to Christ. The formula is straightforward, if not easy to follow: deny yourself and picking up your cross and follow in his footsteps. Each of us is called to a particular state in life, to a way of living that call to holiness out through a context of relationships, either in married life or consecrated life. Then each of us is called further to use our particular gifts in particular ways—it may be a career, it may be a ministry, it may be for a brief time, it may be a lifelong commitment. But even if we carefully dissect the particular form each of those callings takes in an individual life, I think you are still left with a mystery that you will not have solved. Who a person is cannot be so easily pulled apart. At the heart each of us is a mystery, not easily reduced to a quick turn of phrase. There is no way to get to the end of that mystery, to fully unravel and understand. There is only Love. Even if that person is the self. Maybe especially if that person is myself, it is the work of more than a lifetime. It is the work of eternity.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the beatific vision: that we will experience eternity as an everlasting unfolding of ourselves to God and of God’s self to us and really know the glory that is in each individual person that God has made. For the more we know him the more we will become our truest selves.