Love removes the masks we fear we cannot live with out, but know we cannot live within.
— James Baldwin
For Lent, I’ve been thinking how hard it is to really know oneself… It’s a productive reflection question, fitting to a penitential season of shadows and introspection.
But seriously entertaining the reality that my self-knowledge is way off base… that is threatening! “I’m not who I think I am, and I may not even know it!” Lord, help me.
…It gets worse when I realize that reliably knowing myself is basic for entering, upholding and growing healthy, whole relations with others and with God.
Rather than from anything spiritual or profound, the origin of my question was quite everyday. Right before Ash Wednesday, my friend Tim got in a fight with another of our friends, Will. The occasion and the subject matter of their disagreement were both inconsequential. Even the altercation wasn’t a big deal or particularly unusual, the kind of tiffs people get into all the time.
What was notable, however, is that my friend Tim would scuffle or skirmish. Or, more precisely, how often and how passionately he gets “pulled in” or “thows himself into” these sorts of altercations.
It’s not that he’s a saint. It’s just that he’s, well, a crunchy peacenik (said with a deep respect!). A peace studies major and an avowed pacifist. He left what he described as “the contentious Presbyterianism” of his upbringing to become a peaceful Quaker after being trained by their “Alternatives to Violence Project.”
Tim walks the walk. He has dedicated time and money to traveling overseas as a witness for peace. He’s been to Central America and Northern Ireland. He’s protested at the School of the Americas. He somehow avoids paying the taxes that would pay for the U.S. military.
Tim even avoids words and expressions that connote violence. He can quote from King’s “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” explain Gandhi and reference Ralph Bunche off the top of his head. He’s made a career as an advocate for alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders.
But Tim, over what seem to me relatively minor personal offenses, hurtles into “attack overdrive:”
Throw out all the stops.
Take no hostages.
Zero to 60 in a second.
Already at slash and burn.
Or if it would be more destructive, let’s launch nuclear weapons.
Folks, each of us is full of more contradictions than anyone can make sense of (if that’s not an oxymoron!). That doesn’t surprise me.
But that we can be so easily unaware of relatively major aspects of who we are– so oblivious to contradicitons that are so obvious to others… that’s threatening! I fear there is a real sense in which no of us knows him or herself. A harmless example is the shock we receive when we hear our own voices taped or see ourselves videoed.
When friends surprise me completely like this, my breath is taken away: do we ever really know another person completely?
How scary to think than that it’s even harder for us to know ourselves. It’s easy to have a mistaken notion of yourself. Occasionally, we catch a whiff of it: When you think you’re being funny, and mid-joke, you get this uneasy feeling others are experiencing you differently. When you feel you’re being charming, and others see you as smarming. When you believe you’re being principled, and others find you irritating. When you see yourself as smart, and others judge you to be fast-talking or self-serving.
Through the mirror of self-adulation, It’s easy to see ourselves in a golden haze. Or alternatively, through some black cloud of self-criticism. Perhaps most common of all is being afraid to look at ourselves at all and, therefore, settling for comforting self-delusions, instead of more challenging realities.
Jesus says, we are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul. And love our neighbors as ourselves. That two step prescription means more than we can probably ever realize. But it promises me that Someone who knows me better than I know myself still loves me.
Maybe then, if I knew myself better, I could love myself better?
God’s love dares me — and gives permission and courage — to ask myself about the masks with which I hide and protect myself… in the hope that without them, I might find a revelatory acceptance of self that helps me bridge to others and God.
See you in church,
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