In the climactic scene of the book of Exodus, Moses meets God and demands to know God’s name. God answers with the name “YHWH.” The name is a mystery, and not just because its vowels have been lost to history. It’s a mystery because it’s really no name at all. It means something like “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” In response to Moses asking for God’s name, it’s as though God answers, “You want to know who I am? Well, I am what I am.” And yet, to me, this mysterious name reveals a further mystery: In identifying God as “I am what I am,” the name acts as a mirror, reflecting back that question to us: If God is who God is, then who are we? Am I what I am?
Is my life a true expression who I really am?
In the mystery of meeting God, we end up meeting ourselves. And in a sense, the whole of the life of faith is a process of becoming what we already are. It is of course a paradox. My Christian tradition is full of this kind of paradoxical language. We are saved once and for all, and yet are being saved by our active life of faithfulness. We are forever united to Christ, and yet must unite ourselves to Christ daily. The Kingdom of God is here within and among us, and yet it is coming. There is something at the heart of Christian faith that says “now but not yet,” “we are and we are becoming.” And so it is with our identities.
God is who God is. Who then am I?
The message I’ve been getting over and over again this month is “Own it.” Own everything that I am. Own my joys. Own my sorrows. Own my feelings. Own my pain. Own my dreams. Own my passion. Own my mission. Own my values. Own my successes. Own my mistakes. Own my journey. Own my story. Own all the things I’d rather not deal with. Own my fears. Own my hopes. Own it all.
This is of course not a new idea, not in the universe and not even to me. The whole year-in-review process I do, and encourage everyone to do, is an attempt to do just this: to connect with and own my values in order to build the most fulfilling and fruitful life I can. It’s also an idea close to the heart of integral theory: that the more we are aware of and can integrate — the more we own — the more whole and expansive our lives will be. Similarly, ancient Egyptian and Greek oracles were governed by the charge and warning to “Know yourself.” Many current psychological modalities similarly involve a process of taking ownership over one’s life — past, present, and future. And, in the simplest terms, one of happiness guru Gretchen Rubin’s Twelve Commandments of happiness is to “Be Gretchen.” The more of ourselves and our lives we own, the better off we are.
Notice that all of this has two sides: It’s not just a matter of a rah-rah, ‘everything-is-awesome’ owning the stuff we like, though this is critically important. It’s also a matter of owning the stuff we wish we didn’t have to deal with, the parts of our personalities or stories we’d rather pretend didn’t exist, the stuff we push into what Jung called ‘the shadow’. The philosopher Pascal famously noted that much of our misery derives from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. I think he hit the nail on the head — and if this was true back in his day, it’s so much more true now when we have so much distraction at our fingertips. So many of us live in terror of ourselves and so live lives of distraction, entertaining ourselves into numbness.
But, as James Baldwin wisely said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We need to own our stories, especially the parts that are hard: not so they can control us or define us, but so we can truly and honestly stop them from controlling and defining us.
Only then, when we own as much of ourselves and our experiences as we can, the good and the hard alike, not just passively accepting them but actively owning them and what they mean, can we truly become who we truly are.