being

Christ, My Other

How do you know who you are? From the moment we are born, we take in clues around us that help shape who we are. We learn that our mother will feed and nurture us and that our father will protect us. Our perspectives continue to be shaped by the language and culture in which we grow up. And, as we mature, we take on a belief system, moral, religious, political, etc., that continues to shape the way in which we interact with the world. All of these aspects shape our identity. Still, it continues to morph through the different stages of life, as we encounter new people and ideas, and as we have new experiences. If our identity as an individual continues to change, one might ask, “Then, who am I?” Thankfully, we as Christians have a sure answer to that question, which can be found in Christ Jesus.

The philosophical school of phenomenology provides a background through which we can understand where our identity comes from. Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher, describes a relationship between the self and, what he calls, “the Other” in his book Being and Nothingness. The self has a being for-itself, or his own self-defined identity, and a being-for-Others, how others in the world “gaze” on him. The Other’s gaze objectifies the self and defines the self by how the Other perceives him from the outside. To an extent, the self’s subjectivity is denied as he becomes an object of the Other. And, the self can start to believe and take on the identity defined by the Other.

When based on the whims of the gaze of the Other, our character can be very fluid. In his article “Sartre, Kafka & Buber On Identity,” Stephen Small describes how:

It is arguably the case that we know ourselves largely by what others say and think about us. We are not funny if silence follows our telling jokes. We are not handsome if most people do not find us attractive. We are not tall if others tower over us. Others become the metric by which we are measured.

Contrarily, the view of the Other can boost our self-esteem. We think we are the best among our peers when we get a singular, positive comment from our boss. Or, we may think that we are a great athlete, just because we win a single game.

No matter whether these perceptions are completely true or not, our being-for-Others can strongly influence what we believe about our being for-itself. We can easily fall into trying to fit the desires of others, whether that be physically, emotionally, ideologically, or morally. This trend is very evident in modern society, which portrays exaggerated, idealized images of the physically fit, the hipster, or the social activist, and pressures everyone to fit into this mold. But, if we all modify our being for-itself to follow this one image, we become subjected to the rule of societal trends, and we lose who we are really meant to be as individuals. St. Paul urges us: “[d]o not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We cannot find our genuine self in the ever-changing society.

So, where can we find our being for-itself, as it truly is? That comes from our Creator. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, book X, profoundly proclaims

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!

Lo, you were within,

but I outside, seeking there for you,

and upon the shapely things you have made

I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.

You were with me, but I was not with you.

They held me back far from you,

those things which would have no being,

were they not in you.

You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;

you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;

you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;

I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;

you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

He emphasizes how the outside world lead him astray, and how Christ is the Other who truly knows and fulfills him. Once St. Augustine moved interiorly, he encountered the One who knows him infinitely more than any Other in the world. Likewise, by introspecting, we are not forced to be objectified by Others in the world; instead, we can enter into dialogue with and learn from our omnipotent Creator. 

It is He who can fulfill our identity. There are numerous biblical examples of Him doing so before, including: Abram becoming Abraham, or Simon becoming Peter. Not only did Christ give them a new name, but he gave them a new purpose, and a great one at that! St. Catherine of Sienna tells us that “if you be who you are meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.” By letting Christ be our Other, and basing our being for-itself on our identity as children of God, we will become the best version of ourselves. Additionally, the attractive nature of our Christian comportment will inspire our neighbors to make Christ their Other.

The Never Ending Camino

            “Why are you here?” Father José asked me before I began the Camino de San Ignacio in Spain.  I said something along the lines of, “Well, because I had a week off for the first time in over a year, and my family asked me to come.”  Truth be told, I had not thought very hard about the journey.  PA school was all consuming, and there hadn’t really been opportunities for me to feel or think about why I had done anything in a long time.  Father José responded simply, “You’re here because for some reason, God wants you to be here.” 

            He did not say that God wanted me to do anything, pass a test, or even meet the people I was with.  He just said, “God wants you to be here.”  I am a scientific person, and I was not satisfied with his answer.  I like to know what the Lord wants from me.  I prefer whatever that is to have a definitive time line and a measurable outcome.  I want to fix things and create solutions to problems.  Hearing that the Lord just wanted me to just “be” there was one of the most difficult things for me to comprehend and even more difficult to live.  It meant letting go of the past, allowing the future to take care of itself, placing one foot in front of the other, and simply walking…for many miles. 

            “Pilgrimage must bring us to the limit of ourselves,” Father José said.  Pilgrimage, as I came to understand it, is meant to reveal our inability to control everything in our lives and therefore challenge us to trust God and to love.  So, I walked through the mountains and dirt roads of Spain.  For a short while, I felt relief.  My heart felt free for the first time in years because for just a few days, I could physically see that the only thing the Lord wanted from me was the present step.  Unfortunately, I had to return to the United States before the end of the pilgrimage and begin clinical rotations.  I believed my pilgrimage was over, but thankfully, I was wrong.   

            “Kinyarwanda…hmmm,” I thought as I read her chart.  Kinyarwanda is a language spoken only in Rwanda and Uganda.  Seeing this particular language in the chart meant I needed to use an interpreter on a language line to speak with this refugee patient.  I dialed 9-1-877...  and put the interpreter on speaker as I entered the patient’s room.  She was one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen.  The young girl, wearing a traditional dress, gripped her small baby boy tightly to her chest.  She was not sick but needed to update and receive immunizations for her green card.  I asked the interpreter to explain that her immunizations were up to date, so she could begin the green card application process.  “Sawa” or “okay,” she said.  I listened to her heart with my stethoscope.  As I listened, her baby squeezed my finger with a smile.  I inhaled deeply to demonstrate that I needed her to take a deep breath also while I listened to her lungs.  She followed suit appropriately, while her baby and I continued exchanging goofy faces.  She did not really need much in the way medicine from me.  Stripped of words and recognizing the limits of my medical background to address issues surrounding immigration, I struggled to see what God wanted from me right then.  My patient did not have a medical problem for me to solve, though she was certainly struggling.  Instead, she needed subtle motions, eye contact, and concern.  She needed love.  She reminded me that my pilgrimage was not over.  As Father José had said, “Pilgrimage pushes us to our limits.”  Even though I wanted to be a heroine and solve her problems, I had to recognize that I was a limited pilgrim on this earth.  I could only give her presence and love.  As she walked out of the clinic, her small baby looked back and waved.  It was all God asked of me.  It was enough.             

            It was symbolic for me that I never completed the Camino de San Ignacio because I realized that the “pilgrimage” is never over.  We will always be pushed to our personal limits and challenged to rely on love.  There is always some reason God wants us to be here.  While we are here, there is always a call to presence, hope, and surrender.  In the words of St. Ignatius:    

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

-St. Ignatius of Loyola