Who Am I?

3 Mar



Who Am I?

A team of doctors did me a big favor last week–I didn’t realize it at the time, but it dawned on me gradually. I have been under examination for almost three months now, in an attempt to figure out why my right hip and my hands have been deteriorating so much in the past few months. I underwent six scans and tests; four doctors studied my situation. Finally, they came up with a diagnosis–exotically named: Charcot’s disease. If you Google it, you won’t find a whole lot. Jean-Martin Charcot is credited with observing/inventing the ailment in the second half of the nineteenth century.

I took this diagnosis back to the doctor who had started me on this medical quest. His first reaction: “I’m skeptical, it doesn’t figure.” That started the reflective juices flowing.

Now I realize that I had put myself in the situation in which I believed that the doctors and the tests and the imaging could define me, and I have been anxiously waiting for their definition. After all, for twelve weeks I considered myself to be in a no-man’s land, in limbo, I said; I said the doctors were deciding my future.

All that was shattered when a doctor whom I respect said that the judgment of four other doctors, whom I also respect, didn’t figure for him. “Back to limbo,” some friends said; “that must feel terrible,” others told me. Yes, it did–for a couple of days. Then things began to clear–I was looking for my definition in the wrong places; in a strange way, the words “it doesn’t figure” became words of liberation.

That got me to thinking. Just what is it that defines me? And how do I let myself be defined? How do I come in clarity to a self-definition that can work for me? In the poem below, I suggest that I have to put the pieces of the puzzle together myself; I have to do the self defining. I believe that is true, but there is more to it than the poem encompasses.

There are many forces and people that not only propose my definition, but also work very hard to impose their definitions upon me. I certainly reject some of them–the images proposed by the TV commercials, for example, but there are others that I gladly have accepted, even before I thought about them–images of belonging and love from my family and friends.

For me, the Christian proposals are decisive: that I am a child of God, that I have a destiny that transcends my life span on this earth, that I have a calling that transcends the circumstances of my life. Much of it is, I have lately recognized, bound up with my belief that I am part of a narrative, a story that God has written. The life and preaching of Jesus is the pivotal segment of that story. I am written into the story, and that matters. Being “written in” gives foundational meaning to my life.

It is true that I have to accept this way of defining myself–the poem has that right. This proposal has been preached to me in thousands of sermons that I have heard over the years, and I studied it and even taught it for several decades in seminary and graduate school; I have pondered it intellectually–in the abstract, it makes sense to me. That alone doesn’t make it my own at a personal level, however. I have to reach out and choose it for myself.

Being written in does not answer a lot of the questions, least of all those that the doctors are puzzling over. Who knows? Charcot’s name may return, since there will be more examinations. But being written into Jesus’ story configures the stage on which the doctors’ work takes place. I am not waiting to be defined in an ultimate way. Rather, I am waiting to discover an important next episode in that story–or, to follow up the theater image, the next set of stage directions for my life’s script.

How do you define yourself? Who are you?

Who Am I?

The doctors lay out
all these possibilities
scans and x-rays
tests of blood
and other
bodily liquids
they recall certain
of your symptoms

You see they say
it all points to this–
a classic case
the next doctor
starts you on another quest
cranks up the circus calliope
for another spin around

The spin doctors
who grace [the]
tv [screen]
cry out day and night
you are this
you want this–
the comforts
the impressive objects
the glitzy gadgets
of the good life
put that last
in inverted commas
On the couch
counselor across
from me
from my
the who I am and
who I want to be

In the pew
I am God’s child
the priest forgives me
in God’s name
sends me home in
fallen but lifted up
for blessing

Finally who I am
where I’m going
only I can say
I form the image
draw the map
paint the picture
from the scraps
and puzzle bits
that surround me
no one can put them
together for me

Phil Hefner

4 Responses to “Who Am I?”

  1. Esther March 3, 2014 at 10:10 pm #

    As you told my class years ago in that epitaph exercise, you’ve found your niche! I appreciated the poem even more after having read the blog. I envy your sense of being “written in”, having never felt it myself. With much love and appreciation….

  2. philnevahefner March 3, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

    And to you, as well, Esther. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Anne Kull March 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    I had recently also an experience of being defined as a hippy theologian, leftist, progress-believer, existentialist, multiculturalist, “academic” (vs church) etc. These were all supposed to be insults. And I did not feel particularly insulted, Sometimes the definers perhaps have to try harder! My love and greetings to all of you!

    • philnevahefner March 5, 2014 at 1:36 am #

      Good to hear from you, Anna. Reminds me of Cyrano de Bergerac–remember the time when he is approached by his detractors, and he says, “Here, thank God, come my enemies.” Better to have them not be friends. You are being complimented!

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