Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Being "Myself" Means Being in Relationships with Real People

There is a big difference between self-absorbtion and a realistic perception of the self. A closed and stunted self-preoccupation leads to narcissism and, ironically, an incapacity to see one's true "self." Realism, on the other hand, leads to the authentic discovery of one's self as a person, a some-one whose identity is formed by and can only flourish within one's relationship to reality and especially to other persons.

I can't learn this from books.
If I'm honest with my own experience, this fact is vivid and striking. If I truly look at "myself" I find that what I see are relationships, concrete relationships with real people; relationships that take me beyond myself.

I find that I am not an impenetrable atom, an isolated individual who creates his own identity. I am not simply a thing that is "there by itself." I have never been an isolated, autonomous entity, not for a single moment. I came into existence as someone's son, and the dawn of my awareness is full of the memory of being a son, a brother, a grandson, and a nephew.

I soon began to discover that I was also a "friend," and as the years have gone by I have been much enriched by these relationships on all of their many different levels.

And then I became a husband, and here I have really learned that I am nothing "by myself," that I must share myself, share my life, live in communion with others--in marriage that means first of all a covenant with one very particular person.

I have learned this not by philosophy, but by almost 20 years of hard human experience, not only by the joys of giving and sharing many blessings, but also through dark and difficult times, through recognition that the ugliness I found inside myself was a cause of real suffering to another human being, and that we had to give and receive and share "love" together even in these ugly, painful places.

At the heart of love and of all relationships is this mysterious thing called "sacrifice." You really know that you belong to someone when you just give without expecting anything back, you just give because there is this other person who is with you and who needs you in order to keep herself together and move forward.

You know you really belong to someone when you are humbled, when another suffers and makes sacrifices for you, and carries burdens with you because you are together with her in life. You know you really belong to someone when she makes space in her life for your faults, when she treats you with patience and compassion.

It can be a grubby business, like digging a long trail together through the woods, but some new sense arises in the midst of this work and struggle. You are going somewhere together, and you need each other to get there. Even more so, there is a truth that begins to emerge: you both want to get there together. You sacrifice because you really love the other person, you want her to arrive at her destiny, and it is the same destiny as your own.

And, of course, there are others on the path too.

At a certain point in my life, "I" suddenly acquired the identity of "Daddy." For five particular human persons, that is my actual name (though it slowly finds a way to shorten itself into "Dad" as they grow). There is something "authoritative" about the way they identify me by this name. It is their right. It changes me and determines my responsibilities in deep ways, but it does not hinder my identity. It enables me to grow. It is a gift.

Family. I tell all the amusing stories, because that is my nature and also because--thanks be to God--we are on the whole a cheerful, endearing, open hearted bunch (in the midst of all our chaos and squabbling and hollering and whatnot). But we have all the normal family tensions and problems.

And these kids have also heard their father's cries of pain and have seen the sufferings of his illness and its consequences. They have endured his weakness and incapacity, his sadness and withdrawal. They have no illusions about him being perfect.

But they have also seen that he loves them, that he struggles to be present to them, and they know that he prays for a strength that he does not possess by his own power. They also know that he and their mother love each other and are committed to each other for life.

These are relationships that are already taking new forms, and will change throughout our lives. I live each day and try to respond, knowing that "the future" will bring sacrifices and suffering and also some foretaste of true joy.

God, of course, makes everything possible. It is all the story of a fundamental relationship, the one that makes me exist: my relationship with God.

I dwell with God in the silent and secret places of my own heart. But in the depths of that heart I find the others that I have been called by God to love. He has brought us together to love one another and serve one another and let His mercy shine through us.