Who Am I? And Who Are You?


my sofa nook

          Who am I?  And who are you?  As I sit or lie in my sofa nook with a chronic illness which limits my activities and cuts me off from a busy world, I often ponder what it’s all about.  What is the meaning, the purpose of a life such as mine?  In a busy world that judges us all by what we achieve, that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day, my sense of self-identity can so easily slip away.

          It’s very tempting for those of us with chronic health issues to compare our lives with the healthy lives of those around us.  Unfortunately, when we do this, we all too often come away with the feeling that we are “lessened,” that our stories are curtailed, incomplete, deficient.  With so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are.  

          After his resurrection, Jesus warns his disciple Peter that a time will come when he will no longer be in control of his life. Peter’s response is immediate.  He points to another disciple and asks, “and what about him?”  Jesus tells him rather sharply that that is really none of his business.  Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his, Jesus tells him.  Just “follow me.”  Just live out your own story, and let him live out his.  A challenging directive.  To Peter…to me…and to all of us. 

          Henri Nouwen in his little book Discernment tells of a friend who discovered in his 50’s that he had cancer.  He had been a very active man, and he had always defined himself by all the good things that he was able to accomplish.  Who was he now with his body crippled with cancer and exhausted from all the treatments?  Nouwen and his cancer-ridden friend puzzled together over this. 

          As we might expect from Nouwen, he offered his friend some profound insights.  He suggested that he should see that his vocation as a human was to be fulfilled not in his activities and accomplishments but rather in his ACCEPTANCE of his situation.  In his WAITING to discover what God was about in his life.  In his deep AWARENESS that God, not his activity, was the center of his life, and that God is always the one at work to define our lives and to help us determine just who we are.

          To live out such a vocation is truly a challenge.  I would so much rather define myself by what I accomplish.  I want my activities to be the center and focus of my tiny universe.  I want to control my possibilities.  I want to see who I am in the row of daily trophies sitting on my mind’s shelf.  

          A character in Anthony Doerr’s short story “Mkondo” tells a lost soul who’s searching for his life, “the only way to find something is to lose it first.”  Along with countless others who live with a chronic illness, I have lost many of the trimmings that I once relied upon to define my life.  But I do believe that in my losing I have also been finding.  It’s a slow finding, to be sure, and it’s a finding filled with many questions and many doubts.  But it’s a finding, nonetheless.  The finding of a growing stillness within.  The finding of a deepened attentiveness to the layers of life around me and within me.  The finding more of God’s life burning within my own, even in those moments when I feel so unsure of who I am.

          A challenge, yes.  But when all is said and done, perhaps this is the challenge not just for those of us who live with “chronic.”  Perhaps this is the challenge for the healthy as well as the not-so-healthy.  To let go of old self-definitions.  To learn the way of acceptance, the way of waiting, the way of awareness.

          Who am I?  And who are you?  And what’s it really all about?  We’ll probably never, in this lifetime, know the full answer to all the mysteries of our lives, but perhaps we may come closer to knowing who we really are as we lose more of our “trophy” selves and find ways to live into patterns of a quiet openness to our innermost selves and to the God who lives and breathes through all our doings.  Through all our not-doings as well.


18 thoughts on “Who Am I? And Who Are You?

  1. Thanks for this moving and meditative, thoughtful spiritual counsel, Carol. I find much help in the verse “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in/as me….” My little “i” is so ephemeral, changing, self-centered, and in many ways illusory. How good to know that my True Self, Christ, is my life, and the essence of who I am. Prayers and Blessings on your journey of faith. Marchiene Rienstra

  2. Carol, you may not have trophies in your mind but you are surrounded by bouquets of flowers from those who treasure you. We love you for who you are and not what you do. Thank you for sharing yourself and your thoughts with us.

    “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy. And I am sure that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” Philippians 1:3,4 & 6

  3. In the musical “Les Miserables” there is a haunting song in which the successful businessman and mayor sings your question repeatedly, Who am I? In a powerful musical climax he answers, “I am Jean Valjean.” On one level that means in all probability giving up all that he cherishes and even the one for whom he is responsible, Cosette. It is an act of sacrifice. At another level, deeper, I think, it means simply, I am that one unique individual who, whatever my past or future in terms of worldly accomplishment or comfort, lives this present with and for God. Your trio of acceptance, waiting, and awareness and this story seem to me to illuminate one another. Thanks for your deep insights. Merold

  4. “Who am I?” you ask. I asked myself this very question during my daily walk around a nearby lake this morning. Seriously. What are the chances that I’d come home to this post?

    Where to start . . . first I love these phrases, “that counts the number of trophies we can place on the shelves of our minds at the end of each day”; “with so little to show for our lives, it’s easy to wonder who we really are”; “Don’t compare your life and your destiny with his”; “awareness that God, not his activity, was the center of his life”; and “in my losing I have also been finding”. That’s a lot of wisdom to emerge from a head resting on a green pillow. Not to take anything away from your insidious illness (yes, I hate, hate, hate it), but when I first saw the photo in this post I thought, “I WANT TO REST THERE! Check out all that light coming through the window!” And also, coming through your words.

    So. “Who am I?” Well, at the moment, grateful to be your friend. You may spend most of your days on a sofa, but based on what I’ve learned about God’s love through you, you’re going to have to accept on some level that this sofa is a royal seat within spitting distance of Jesus. Come to think of it, that sofa nook is a still point, wouldn’t you say? Like of the turning universe — that small thing. It’s a still point. Trumps (so sorry to use this word) a trophy any day. I hear you when you say that your sense of self-identity can so easily slip away thanks to your “I-spit-on-it-I-hate-it-so-much” chronic illness. Maybe you can, during empty moments, think of it as a still point that has pinned you so close for so long to the fire of God that you can bear truths that would undo most of us.

    I walk around a lake and see the sudden flight of a white egret and never ONCE think that’s God saying, “Pay attention!” You sit on that sofa and you become the white egret. Shut your eyes. Take a deep breath. Yep, that’s you soaring.

  5. Sharonimo, your comments brought tears to my eyes. You have blessed my life in so many ways, and your beautiful words heap yet another blessing on me. A still point. An egret soaring. Two powerful images I will let sit with me in my little nook. Perhaps they will help me live more and more into that acceptance, that waiting, that awareness. Always a challenge, but what, in life, isn’t?!

  6. Merold, thanks for the noting of Jean Valjean and all that was involved in his question “Who am I?” Living with you helps me to be the Carol God is making me to be, and I thank you for your ongoing presence and help in my life. Together, perhaps, we will daily discover more and more of who we really are.

  7. Thank you, Carol, for this very helpful, thoughtful, insightful and touching essay , “Who am I?” In God’s eyes and in mine–you are very special.

  8. Carol, I read your Slow Lane post today and would very much like to share it with several other friends with chronic conditions, including my young niece Jo.

    She and I often talk about this very subject.

    Your discussion of acceptance and waiting didn’t resonate with me as much as your discussion of awareness.

    I have come to see that it is not just chronically ill people who question their value on earth. Healthy, active people do it too.

    We all live in a day and age when we can instantly and frequently compare ourselves with thinner, seemingly happier, younger, more productive, more famous, and more highly achieving people via the Internet and social media.

    There are so many ways for any human being to feel “lessened”, including feeling lessened as a “good person”. Oh, look, here’s a 12 year old girl who started a food bank that feeds the city of Eugene, Oregon….oh look, here’s a 17 year old who sponsored 200 refugee families from Yemen with money from her paper route…

    I often talk in Unitarian church groups about appreciating the “lily-ness” of myself and others. This is the stripped-down essence of a human being, like a lily of the field or a blade of grass, or the quintessential sparrow. Just a little fragment of Life, of God, of the Force, however you name it.

    It’s hard to see our own lily-ness sometimes. We tend to see what you are so eloquently calling the “trophy” self. It requires an almost prayer-like, meditation -like state to get in touch with the lily. The part that neither toils nor spins.

    I believe that if we don’t make daily contact with our lily-ness, chances are we are missing other people’s lily-ness as well….and we are probably pretty unaware of the lily-ness in clouds, crying babies, acorns, crab grass etc.

    Thank you, dear friend, for your soulful musings.


    Sent from my iPad


  9. I love you so much, Carol. And I know you love me a lot, too. You ask, what in life, isn’t a challenge? Sorry, but love sometimes is pretty easy, kinda like breathing — you know, the way God breathes on us . . . as you ALWAYS remind me when I think my words heap mostly b.s. and not blessings.

  10. Gabriella, I love your image of “lily-ness.” And yes, I do think it takes a kind of meditative posture to become aware of this. Something I work at frequently, along with the ever-present need for acceptance and waiting. I will tuck that lily-ness image into my little nook with Sharonimo’s “still point” and “egret soaring.” Thank you. And yes, I’m happy to have you share this. I do remember your speaking of your niece.

  11. Thank you for your reading suggestions — I love Nouwen — so simple and so profoundly deep in his simplicity. I have not read that particular title. Library-bound I am! Thank you also for sharing your health story with us. Many blessings.

  12. Carol, I have asked this questions myself many, many times and words fail me to express my high regard for this wonderful gift God has bestowed on you to communicate these stirring thoughts which every child of God is bound to ask themselves. I believe that it is the will and plan of God to live our lives as vessels that contain Him becoming the self-expression of the Living God in us. Indeed all that happened to us, have been ways of God’s molding us. At time I get overwhelmed with the special needs of my children, but we are what we are and that is God’s planting, These thoughts have helped me relax in the sense of not questioning too often, who I am or what I am; but they remind me to simply being myself – the will of God; the light of the world. Carol, I greatly enjoy your mediations! Peace be with you.
    God bless you and keep you in his care!
    Love, Margret

  13. Margarete, Your comment comes, I know, from some deep struggles with what it means to live as God’s child and to live out our faith in the midst of difficulties that at times are so consuming. I like your phrase “becoming the self-expression of the Living God in us.” Let’s keep encouraging each other to let that become more and more a reality in our lives. God’s peace to you as well!

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