The danger of defining ourselves

  • January 30, 2014

Given the speed and change in our world today, the oceans of information being given us by the new technologies, the speed with which knowledge now passes through our lives, the increasing specialization and fragmentation inside higher education and the ever-increasing complexity of our lives, you occasionally hear someone say, usually just after offering an opinion on something: But what do I know anyway? Good question: What do we know anyway?

On the surface this may sound humble and, if sincere, does depict a certain humility. But this kind of admission has a sad underside: What do I know anyway? Indeed, what can we know amongst all the complexity and sophistication of our world?

Well, we can know our own light, our own moral centre, our own heart, our own mystical centre. Ultimately we can know what’s most real and most precious to us and this is the most important knowledge of all. We can know what’s ultimately important. Next to the inchoate knowledge we have of God, knowledge of our own light, of our own moral centre, is the most important thing we will ever know. Indeed knowing our own centre is intimately intertwined with knowing God.

This is something we need to highlight today because so many forces around us and inside us conspire to deflect us from being awake to and attentive to our own deepest centre, that is, from being in touch with who we really are. When we’re honest we admit how difficult it is to be genuinely sincere and how difficult it is for us to act out of our real centre rather than acting out of ideology, popular opinion, fashion, fad or out of some prefabricated concept of ourselves that we’ve ingested from others around us. Often our attitudes and actions do not really reflect who we are. Rather they reflect who our friends are, the newspapers and web sites we’ve read recently, and what newscasts and talk shows draw our attention. Likewise we often understand ourselves more by a persona that was handed to us by our family, our classmates, our colleagues or our friends than by the reality that’s deepest inside us. Beginning from infancy we ingest various notions of who we are: “You’re the bright one! You’re the stupid one! You’re a rebel! You’re timid! You’re selfish! You’re afraid! You’re good! You’re destined for higher things! You’ll be a failure!”

And so the challenge is to be more attuned to our own light, to our own moral centre, to be more in touch with what’s ultimately most real and most precious to us. No small part of that is the challenge to resist self-definition, to not picture ourselves and act out of an image we’ve ingested of ourselves as the bright one, the stupid one, the rebel, the one who needs to say: “But what do I know anyway?” What’s the price we pay for doing that?

First, both our compassion and our indignation then become prescribed and selective. We will praise certain people and things and be incensed by other people and other things not because these speak to or speak against what’s most precious inside us, but because they speak to or against our image of ourselves. When that happens we not only lose our real selves we also lose our individuality. Ideology, popular opinion, fashion, fad, group-think and hype, ironically, bury us into a sea of anonymity. In Rene Girard’s words: In our desire to be different we all inevitably end up in the same ditch! One needs only to look at any popular fad, such as wearing a baseball cap backwards, to see the truth of this.

How might we healthily define ourselves in a way that doesn’t deflect us from being awake to our own light? What kind of self-definition might help free us from ideology? How might we think of ourselves in a way so that the image of ourselves that we ingested in childhood might no longer hold us captive in adulthood so that we are strong and healthy enough to not let, as William Stafford says, a simple shrug or a small betrayal break our fragile health and send the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dykes?

There’s no easy answer, but here’s a suggestion: Early on in his ministry, when people were still trying to figure out who he was, they came to John the Baptist and asked him to define himself: “Who are you?” They asked: “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John replied that he was none of these. “Who are you then?” they persisted. John’s answer: “I am a voice crying out in the wilderness! Just that, no more!”

Now that’s a healthy self-image and a true humility, with no sad underside.

(Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at

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