Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, hungry for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsty for words of kindness, for neighbourliness, trembling with anger at despotisms and pretty humiliation, caught up in expectation of great events, powerlessly grieving for friends at an infinite distance, weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to lay farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his cell in Berlin as the last days of his life and the last days of World War II ran out together.
When I was growing up, my church, Mom, and friends would praise me highly for being mature, wise, loving, strong, and godly. My Mom labeled me, “The Caring One,” and “The Christian,” “The Sacrificial One.” “Many daughters have done worthily, thou excellest them all,” she said once, quoting Proverbs 31:29. At the same time, some of my siblings verbally attacking me, calling me “hypocrite,” “pharisee,” “boring,” and other terrible names.
I was very confused by these extreme descriptions of my character, and I used to occasionally walk my dog to the local park, sit on the teeter-totter, and cry out to God, “Who am I? Am I the wonderful, saint-like angel that some tell me I am? Or am I the monster, the terrible beast as others say?” I began, then, to ask God to teach me the truth of Who He was, who I am, who others are, and what life was about. I didn’t realize, at that time, that there was such a need to pray for truth. I was unaware of the rip type of dysfunctions that existed in my family. I think that God has answered this prayer for truth throughout my life, and has protected me from deception.
Because I was so compliant and guiltable, I always saw my Mom’s “sweet” side. That changed when I got engaged, and I was no longer as compliant and controllable. (Emotional abusers can be very sweet when you do what they want, but they turn abusive when you stop.) Shortly after I got married, my Mom told me that I was “a daughter from Hell–the worse daughter a mother could have.” At the same time, my mother-in-law praised me as “an answer to her prayer” for a wife for her son, and “a gift from God.” Again, I was confused by the extreme descriptions, wondering how I could be both daughter from Hell and gift from God at the same time.
Through my life, I have again and again encountered these extremes: Ask my family what they think of me, and they will describe a monster, a daughter from Hell, an ungrateful daughter who has rejected and betrayed her family. Ask my husband and he will say that I am intelligent, brave, honest, and hardworking, and that I have integrity. Ask my friends, and most of them will describe me as caring and wise. Some friends seem to ignore my struggles and faults and see me as always strong, always full of faith, always wise, always caring, without failure. At least two of my friends see me as a person who is always weak and needy because I have honestly revealed my struggles and faults. I’ve wondered, is the fault in me, or do people see me as all one way or another because of their need. Do they need me to be always strong so they can rest on me and draw strength from me? Do they need me to be always weak and needy so they can be the strong deliverer? Why can’t the ones who see me as strong understand that I also am human, and that I can be hurt? Why can’t those who see me as always weak and needy understand that I God strengthens me in weakness?
These extremes in description have always confused me, and sometimes made me feel fractured, and split in two. “Am I the monster or the angel?” I wondered and wrestled. If I am good, why do some people think I am a monster? If I am a monster, why do some think I am so good? How can I be both extremes? How do I know if what people say of me is true or false? If “every man’s way is right in his own eyes,” how do I know what I really am, and if what I think of myself is true?
Although I have occasionally agonized over who I am (abuse victims struggle with their identity and value), I think the struggle has been mostly beneficial. It has caused me to try to reconcile these two extreme views. What I have concluded–and what I always end up concluding when I wrestle with this–is that I am a bit of everything. I have my good points, but I am not all good. I have my bad characteristics, but I am not all bad. There are times when I have strength, wisdom, faith, and love, but I have my weaknesses, faults, and failures too. I am sometimes weak and needy, but I am not always weak and needy, and I have times of strength. I resent those who would label me always weak, and I reject the label of always strong. I think those who would have me always weak do so because they want to be in control, and those who would ask me to be their strength are asking me to be their god, and that is a burden I cannot and will not fulfill. If refusing to be a god causes me to get bruised and broken as disappointed people pull me off a pedestal I never wanted to be on…so be it.
Understanding that I am a mixture of good and bad and strong and weak has kept me balanced. I can’t be proud of my goodness because I see my weakness. I cannot despair of my badness because I know I have strengths. I accept that I am both, and in accepting both extremes, I accept myself. But more than that, I see that any true righteousness I have comes from God, and His forgiveness and love. I accept that I am a sinner who sins and needs salvation and forgiveness, a needy person who must depend on God to meet my needs, a weak person who needs His strength. I also accept that I am a beloved daughter of God, accepted by Him, with an inheritance in Heaven, who can be more than a conqueror and do all things through Him who strengthens me.
I cannot understand that I am a mixture of good and bad, strengths and weaknesses, without also realizing that the same is true of others. Is anyone all good or all bad? Can we celebrate strengths in others without making them our god? Can we allow others to have their weaknesses and failures without calling them monsters? Can we forgive people for not fulfilling our expectations? I accept that even the most monstrous and abusive people in my life have their strengths and good points, and even the most angelic people have their dysfunctions and weaknesses.
I must add, now, that I believe that there are righteous people and wicked people in the world. I believe this because the Bible makes this distinction. The Bible says, “by their fruits you shall know them,” so I think we can recognize good and evil people. So what makes a person righteous or wicked? How do we know when a person is not merely one who is dysfunctional, wounded, with weaknesses and failures, and has become actually wicked?
I think it all has to do with the choices that we make through our life. Do we, even though imperfectly, embrace God and seek His truth? When confronted with a failure, do we repent and seek to change? Or do we habitually push away God, reject and deny His truth, and refuse to acknowledge our sins? I often think of what C.S. Lewis has written. I think he sums it all up very well:
I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
That explains what always used to puzzle me about Christian writers; they seem to be so very strict at one moment and so very free and easy at another. They talk about mere sins of thought as if they were immensely important: and then they talk about the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven. But I have come to see that they are right. What they are always thinking of is the mark which the action leaves on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—forever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.
One last point. Remember that, as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.