“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”
Merton is asking about the kinds of labels we have for who we are–how we are known and for what we are known. And we are quite good at creating all kinds of classifications, neat boxes and categories into which we can both put others, and ourselves. How are we known to others? How do we know ourselves? What identifies us….our allegiance with a sports team, our religious affiliation, the kind of car we drive, what work we do, what neighborhood we call home? The list of “identifiers” goes on and on.
But how good are we at knowing who we ARE, or harder still…knowing who OTHERS TRULY are? Our society seems to find all kinds of ways for us to be anonymous, wrapped up in and subjected to only the things of our choosing (witness everyone glued to their individual “screen” or listening to only what they choose in public places). This makes getting to know someone or, to use the word that Merton chooses, “identifying” someone even more difficult, and makes being known equally as difficult.
These questions Merton asks are perhaps difficult for some of us to answer. I mean, what DO we live for…REALLY live for? Do we live for our family? Do we live in order to provide security for ourselves or others? Or deeper…do we live in order to enrich the lives of those with whom we are in relationship? Do we live to change the world–whatever little corner we can–so that others might grow and thrive? Do we live so that we might enlighten and enliven others, or do we live for the betterment of ourselves?
Even with those sets of questions above, I’m not really getting at what Merton is asking because those are all “broad-stroke” questions, aren’t they? What are the details of what we are living for?
But, where the going gets tough in this matter of identification–at least for me–is looking at what, “is KEEPING ME from living fully for the thing I want to live for” (my emphasis added). Yet, without that critical step, that critical analysis, the whole exercise simply falls short of us actually making any real progress towards living our lives more authentically.
What is the thing for which are you living…and what is holding you back from that thing, that life? As we end the season of Epiphany and stare down the barrel of Lent, these questions from Thomas Merton can be helpful ones to use as we examine ourselves and our lives. I think the answers we ponder and settle on will “identify” the thin places in our lives where we feel the closeness of God’s presence. The answers of our identity will also help us to know where sin has entered into our lives…moving us farther away from the God who knows our true “identity” and longs for us to become our best selves…created, loved and known.