Many of us have had what is called a sophomoric crisis, me included. What is a sophomoric crisis you ask? As the Latin hints at it is when we think we know more than we do and begin to question our very identity. It happened to me in either my sophomore year of high school or college, I can’t remember which, when I wondered who was I really? Was I this middle class nerd who liked the Grateful Dead? Or was I whatever my friends were? If they were tough guys, then I was a tough guy, if they pretended to be erudite and smart, I pretended to be erudite and smart. I felt like a chameleon, always changing my colors to suit those around me. It was a real crisis. And then there was my worry that I didn’t think I mattered at all. I decided to try a little experiment: I would not go out of my way to reach any of my friends, stay in my room as much as possible and see if anyone noticed or reached out to me. A full week went by and nobody called. I was heartbroken: Nobody loves me, nobody cares, guess I will just eat peaches and pears. Anyone here ever tried that?
This was long before Facebook. But now I see this on FB every once and a while. Someone will post. “Just checking to see if anyone will miss me. Click like if you are still out there.” And then they are devastated that nobody notices. Why would we do that to ourselves? It’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute.
“Be who you are” was one of Forrest Church’s great temperate instructions, want what you have, do what you can, be who you are. Even when it pushes against sanity. Nytimes article about Milt Greek, a schizophrenic living in Ohio who has been trying to channel his higher delusions into a positive center. He tries to ignore the voices of destruction. But he does listen to the voices that implore him to make a better world. Being who we are means embracing our given talents.
Thanksgiving 1993. A soup kitchen on Calfax in South Bend, IN. The food was warm and there was plenty of it. Half way through the meal the door flew open and these two drunks came in pushing people this way and that, shouting for something to eat. My first reaction was to call the police but I didn’t. Being the only male volunteer in the room, I yelled at them to keep it down and stop pushing. When the first got to the front of line he wanted to know what we were serving, although those weren’t his exact words. I told him and as he took the plate he sniffed it and flung it back at me. I ducked and the plate missed me, but the food went everywhere. I let loose a tirade that turned more than a few heads since they all knew I was a minister and called the staff upstairs who came down and had the two men escorted out. As I cleaned up from the encounter I thought to myself “How ungrateful can you be”? Here he had come for free food, warmth and he had thrown it back in my face. I questioned whether I really did have the guts to be a part of the solution. Not answered easily. As I thought about that incident, I began to realize that my reaction was in part the result of who I was, a white, middle class man, just as his ungratefulness was a result of his being. How many of us, having lived a life full of violence, hunger and rejection would have been grateful for a plate of stale food? I was looking from the top down in life and he was looking from the bottom up; expecting him to be grateful was a condition of who I was and not a condition of his life.
Truly living up to who we are sets the stage for us to make our lives and the world a better place. Learning who you are can take a lifetime. For some of us, it is very painful. Girls that are born into boy’s bodies and boys born into girls bodies. Transgender people are ridiculed, taunted, and are ten times more likely to be murdered than any other identity group in the world.
My identity in life comes from knowing misfortune to be occasional not constant; while for the drunk his identity is marked by an anger that is the only response to a life of constant hardship. Not that he should have thrown the food at me, but who he was and what he had to deal with played a large part in what he did. To effectively undo a wrong we have to look seriously at who we are. We cannot do everything we think we can, no matter how much we want to. But we won’t know until we try; whether it is starting again or healing some ancient hurt. We are who we are, because we did everything we could, and when we could do no more we rest secure in being who we are.
Who among us doesn’t carry a loss? Who among us was unable to do what we thought we could? But don’t you see? If you tried, you still were caring enough to be worthy. Because there is merit in trying. There is redemption in every attempt we have to be who we would dream we are. Sometimes we will fail but we try and are saved. And that is thanks enough. And that is love.
Traditionally, religions have been about the task of providing a set of beliefs upon which a person takes action. That is the meaning of ethics; the doing of a moral understanding. But, as Dr. King understood, we have to sometimes stand against what our religion tells us to do. Reformations continue to evolve religious understanding even today. I sense one such reformation happening even in evangelical Christianity, not especially known for embracing the troubles of this world. Increasingly, conservative Christians are uniting with other groups to affect positive change in our society. No not on the so-called core values of marriage and abortion, but in terms of global warming, the causes of poverty and war.
When Dr. King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he answered the charge by white and liberal colleagues that he was being too radical. He decried the suggestion that the status quo was good enough when the Kingdom of God on earth required a challenge to that status quo. King asked “was not Jesus an extremist for love; ‘love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that you’? Was not Amos an extremist for justice when he said ‘let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream’? …..was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist when he wrote ‘We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal.’”….the question is we willing to do what it takes to live out what we believe? Our identity as privileged folks weighs on those who have so little privilege.
Eventually, I moved beyond worrying about whether or not I mirrored other people. We all do to a certain extent. It’s our evolutionary imprinting, but more importantly who I am is a result of what I do. Not in a job, but in how we treat others, the kindness we express to strangers. The hope we have in life, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As James Baldwin who became one of the greatest African American writers of all time put it: “An identity would seem to be arrived at by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience." Here then is our work, to thy own self be true, and to that truth we devote our best and most noble self.
With Grace and Grit, John