I’ve been mentoring a former student this past year. He's in his early twenties—a really good guy who asked for some help finding direction. Like many guys that age, a core struggle is to discern his most authentic desires—what he really wants at his core, at a level deeper than passing impulse. “I do all this stuff,” he said over coffee recently. He went on to describe a healthy list of sports, activities, hobbies, and what he does with his family. Then he continued: “But here’s the thing—despite all the stuff I do, I don’t really know who I am.”
I think it's a common feeling. I can relate. Sometimes we can definitely feel like our actions aren't fully expressive of our interior life. But on the other hand, this can be problematic thinking. So I asked him: "Why are you so sure the two are really so different—that is, what you do and who you are?"
It’s deceptive to think there are two versions of ourselves. I used to do this a lot. Less so now, but occasionally I find myself in this mindset. It’s like this: I think of there being the real me. My interior life. My true identity. That construct of my true values, beliefs, desires. But then there’s this other me who acts in the physical world—the one who manifests values, beliefs, and desires through words and actions.
Except that there aren’t two versions. I am whole. I am my actions. I, acting in the world, am not merely a part-time reflection of a separate inner self. There aren’t two selves. I can’t have it both ways. I can’t look at my virtuous actions and say, “yep, that’s the real me!” but then, on the bad days, say, “I know I did that bad thing, but that’s not who I really am.” Or, inversley, if I'm down on myself, I might focus only on the less admirable actions, and chalk up the virtuous stuff to some deceptive lie.
Both virtuous and not-so-virtuous actions comprise part of who we really are. But no one action, or subset of actions, comprises the whole of who we are. We’re not quite that simple. We’re better than the sum of our worst actions. (We just have to acknowledge, likewise, that neither are we only the sum of our best actions.)
Maybe another way of thinking of it is like this: We are both potential and kinetic energy. We have so much potential, but we’re also alive, now. We’re always living out our story in the present. The beauty of this combination is that we have the potential to improve at any moment. We have the potential to master and overcome our weaknesses and failings…if, that is, we’re willing to own them, confront them, and stop making excuses for them. (And, when needed, have the humility to ask for help doing so.)
As I suggested to the young man in this mentoring group, he should give himself some credit, and recognize that maybe “who he is” now isn’t that hard to see. All the good stuff he does is very much who he is. And yeah, the failings are also who he is. It’s a complex picture, and that’s human nature. The potential for his growth will never end, but who he is right now is so vitally important, too. I think recognizing both of these things is key to loving ourselves on a deep level—and when we love ourselves, we can see past the stuff we don't like about ourselves…and others.
Who we are is both potential and kinetic energy. We are what we’ve done—both the good and the bad—but we’re not only what we’ve done. We can be so much more. That should give each of us hope and encouragement.