Learning Who We Are

Become such as you are, having learned what that is.


Nothing is truer than that we become what we are.

                                                                        --Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Henry Miller


So who are we?

The answer given to that question depends on the eyes through which we are being viewed.

For instance, we may appear to be one thing in our own eyes, yet something altogether different in the eyes of others--such as when we see ourselves as being very outspoken and honest in a given situation, whereas those with whom we are interacting in that same situation see us as being dogmatic and controlling.

Then again, there is God's eye. If there is a God (and whether there is or is not, and even whether the word God has any non-idolatrous usage to name something that even might "be," need be of no concern for the point being made, by the way) and if that God in some sense has an eye to see, then who are we in God's eye?

In a poem that I first truly encountered more than thirty years ago and that has spoken to me deeply ever since, the nineteenth century British poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins addresses, at least by my reading, the difference between who we are in our own eyes and who we are in the eye of God.

The first stanza of Hopkins’ poem addresses who we are in our own eyes. The second stanza and final stanza addresses who we are in God’s eye. (Once again: To hear and learn from what Hopkins has to say does not require that one concern oneself with whether God does or does not exist, or even with whether the word God does or does not, when heard correctly, have any use to refer to any actual or possible being whatsoever.)

Here is the poem:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.  

I say móre: the just man justices;   Keeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is – Chríst – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces.    

Hopkins poems.jpeg

If we are seen through the eyes of modern science, then what we are is only what is measurable and quantifiable about us at any given moment. We are no more than the sum total of our qualities, attributes, actions, skills, and actualized or at least actualizable potentials at the moment we are being viewed.

If who we are is no more than what the eye of such science sees of us, neither what Pindar says nor what Henry Miller says makes any sense at all.

If who we are is no more than the current "reality" of us, then there is no sense to be made of any talk of becoming that, since we already are it, like it or not. "Becoming" remains unnecessary any longer, whether that becoming is something to be recommended, as Pindar seems to recommend it, or something inevitable that will come about of itself whether we like it or not, as Miller's remark can be taken to suggest. 

If, however, we are viewed not through the eyes of science but through the eyes of love, then we are something else altogether.  

What love sees in us is not limited to what we have already achieved, to the actuality of us at the moment we are seen.

What loves sees in us is all that of which we are capable--our full potential, regardless of how much of that defining potential we may have actualized at any given time, or even all that we may actualize throughout our entire lifetime.

Love sees, to speak paradoxically, that we really or actually are and always will be more than whatever we are or ever will be in reality or actuality.

Love is capacious, and sees us in all our own capaciousness. In the finite figure of our realized selves love sees the infinity of our capacity for realization.

In love's eye, we are that infinite capacity, that openness and spaciousness that can never be fully filled.

What is more, it is precisely because love sees us as such unfilled, un-fulfillable capacities that love is always satisfied in us just as we are now, in whatever finite fulfillments of our capacities we have attained at any given moment. Love takes joy in us just as we are at present, rather than demanding that we change in one way or another in order to meet some set of expectations: in order to "deserve" being loved.

As St. Paul says, love is patient and kind. "It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails."

For that very reason, love is always creative, in the deepest, root sense of that word, in accordance with which it means nothing such as manufacturing or making according to some prior design and intention, but rather means letting grow, letting be. And in its own being, what love calls forth and lets be is as spacious, as open, as inexhaustible, as love itself.

In the infinite depths of the mirror love holds up to us, we can come to see ourselves as we are in love's eye. That is, we can come to see ourselves as the infinite capacities we most truly are.

It is just such capacities--not any given "actualities"--that we are called to become, if we are truly to become what we truly are. We are not called forth to actualize all our potential, but to bring out and let be the full potency that always infinitely exceeds our actuality.