Knowing Ourselves

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10: 37-9

 

Since Socrates, the central tenet of Western philosophy has been the summons to “Know thyself.” Yet, in today’s gospel, Jesus seems to be saying to us that if we are ever successful in that venture, if we think we have found ourselves, that is the moment when we have actually lost ourselves.

Yesterday, I was privileged to enjoy some hours of significant conversation with a friend. At a point quite early in our conversation, he remarked that the opposite of faith is certainty. This being so, perhaps we can say that the way in which we truly come to know ourselves is quite different from the way of certainty by which we come to know objects. Coming to know ourselves is really a coming to know what and who we are not. If we ever think that we have found ourselves that is the moment when we have ceased becoming who we are.

At different times and in varying situations, we identity who we are differently. For example, and this is often especially true as we suffer the physical diminishment of aging, we express the apparent truism that “if you have your health, you have everything.” While this illustrates the truth that good health is contingent and certainly beyond our control, countless persons who suffer from chronic disease and pain and ill health witness to the truth that good health does not determine our identity and worth. At other times we see who we are as a product of what we have done and accomplished, or of the significance of our present task. Most obituaries feature prominently the work or profession of a person. Perhaps even more deeply, we often consider who we are to be the result of our relationships. Husband or wife, daughter or son, mother or father. Yet, we are not merely the physical state of our bodies, or the work roles we have assumed, or the relationships that we have had. Although these constitute an aspect of who we are, to identify ourselves totally with any of them is to “find ourselves” in a way in which we fail to know ourselves.

So, Jesus tells us that we are not to “identify ourselves” by any external, even including our closest relationships and commitments. In practice this seems to mean that every moment and experience of life shows us something of who we are, but, at the same time, it also shows us who we are not. In the gospel from yesterday’s liturgy for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew offered us a very strange teaching of Jesus “To anyone who has, more will be given and that one will grow rich; from anyone who has not, even what that one has will be taken away” (Mt. 13:12). He says this in the context of those who have knowledge of the kingdom and those who do not. To have knowledge of the kingdom means, at least in part, that one recognizes the reality of spirit in human life. We can never be fully identified with our vital lives or our functional lives because it is spirit that animates them both. We cannot be objectified because we are not objects. To understand this is to be in the world in a way that is different from the one who lacks such understanding.

The one who has, who is aware of what he or she has been given, will experience life as a continuous gift and call, that is will see whatever comes in life as “more.” The person who lives out of a sense of scarcity and meanness will only experience an anxiety and fear of potential loss that will rob them of the experience of gratitude and enjoyment for what they have. When we try to hold on to something, everything that happens will portend threat and loss. This is true with anything or anyone to which or whom we are related, and it is also true of our very selves. To live by faith and in the spirit is to live with the trust that each moment of life as it comes to us will only ask of us what we are able to do and who we are able to be. As spirit, our life is a life in relationship to all that is. Relationship is, of its nature, call. We are, we exist as we respond to the call of life in the “common, ordinary, and unspectacular flow” of the everyday. Our very self is an act. As St. Francis of Assisi says, “It is in giving that we receive.” It is in thinking the thought that is to be thought, in speaking the word that is to be spoken, in doing the “work” that is to be done, in loving the one before me who is asking for my love that I am being my “self”.

This mode of being, in the spirit, is very different from a way of being that looks for results, or gratification, or security, or recognition. In that case I am living to support and enhance the story that I tell myself of who I am. I look to the approval of others to ratify me; I look to the results of my actions to give me meaning; and I look to the gratifications that come from others to afford me security and comfort. This is what it means, in the words of the great spiritual traditions, to live only by craving or aversion. When I live in this way, I know “myself,” but that self that I know is my own illusion. I spend my time “finding,” that is building up, a creation of my own imagination, and in the process I lose my true self. When my own story and illusion about who I am disappears, however, from in front of me, then I can be present to life and the world as it comes to me, asking my “Self” for a response.

Is there a way of practicing detaching from those those cravings and aversions that only allow reality to come to me through the filter of my self-illusions?  It is perhaps the way of dispossession. It is by coming to recognize that what we call loss and gain are mere interpretations of reality based on our attachments. St John of the Cross teaches that one of our basic mistakes is to identify God’s desires (including God’s desires for us) with our desires. In The Dark Night he writes:

Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will. They feel an aversion toward adapting their will to God’s. Hence they frequently believe that what is not their will, or brings them no satisfaction, is not God’s will, and, on the other hand, that if they are satisfied, God is too. They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, which is in opposition to his teaching in the Gospel that those who lose their life for his sake will gain it and those who desire to gain it will lose it.

We readily think that what we want and what we need corresponds to reality and to the truth of who we are. Life is always teaching us otherwise. We can experience these ways that life is reforming and transforming us as loss or as gain. It all depends on our frame of reference. If we are only physical and functional, then all that counters or diminishes our impulses and ambitions are experienced as loss. If who we are is rather also spirit, a mystery “hidden with Christ in God” then all that happens to us has the potential to be forming us in that hidden likeness. As St. John of the Cross says, we are to measure ourselves by God and not God by ourselves.

 

If one keeps dwelling on sense-objects,
attachment to them arises;
from attachment, desire flares up;
from desire, anger is born.

from anger, confusion follows;
from confusion, weakness of memory;
weak memory—weak understanding;
weak understanding—ruin.

But the one who is self-controlled,
who meets the objects of the senses
with neither craving nor aversion,
will attain serenity at last.

In serenity, all one’s sorrows
disappear at once, forever;
when one’s heart has become serene,
one’s understanding is steadfast.

The undisciplined have no wisdom,
no one-pointed concentration;
with no concentration, no peace;
with no peace, where can joy be?

Bhagavad Gita, II, 62-6, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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