I looked in the mirror the other day and had an existential moment. Who is that, I wondered. And who can I trust to tell me the truth?
“Je suis …” has been in the news a lot over the past week. You don’t have to speak French to know what it means; but I wonder if emotions of anger, rage, grief, despair and fear aren’t creating so much static that the profound implications of Je suis get lost in all the iterations.
Philosophers struggle with how best to answer the Who am I question. Each of the three words in the phrase can bring us to our intellectual knees. Bill Clinton is not the first one to parse the verb to be in what appeared to many to be a most tortuous exercise.
Who am I … a thinker? A lover? A killer? A fanatic? A zealot? A jihadist? Whatever or whoever I am, am I that to the extreme? Even God gets caught up in the confusing mesh of identity uncertainty. I am who I am, he says to Moses (Eodus 3:14). Jesus can’t seem to decide on any one metaphor. I am the light; I am the good shepherd; I am the bread of life; I am the door.
When we are with the crowd we are the crowd. When the market place has its way with us we are the consumer.
Justin McKinney tries to put a fine point on identity for those who live in New Hasmpshire. With comic references to the liquor stores at every border crossing (“…after you pay the buck at the toll booth – kind of like a cover charge …”), the absence of seat belt or helmet laws and the freedom to purchase and use fireworks, the implication is that if you live in New Hampshire, whatever else you are you are “free”. Identity in France is a bit more complicated. Not every French citizen is comfortable with the “Je suis Charlie” mantra. Some say the attacks have been a distraction from the larger, more pressing problems of social unrest and economic marginalization that leaves many young people unemployed. Je suis sans emploi!
My moment in front of the mirror had nothing to do with the measure of my fairness; it had everything to do with the yearning for self-knowledge when so many voices are telling me who I am or ought to be.
‘‘Je est quelqu’un d’autre’’ writes the poet. (” ‘I’ is some one Else.”) Psychologists tell us interesting things happen when you put a baby or toddler in front of a mirror. The process of moving from thinking the image is another to recognizing it as your own is complex. But six decades into the project called “life” I still find myself wondering when I look at my reflection. Je suis … qui? I wonder.
With all those “I am” statements of Jesus recorded in the Bible, my favorite is the one in John 8:58. It’s the one I can relate to not because I place myself on the same level as Christ. I relate to it because it comes with no qualifier. It leaves it open with regard to who I am at any given moment. “Avant qu’Abraham existat, Je Suis.”
“Before Abraham was, I Am.”
I say this as both confession and profession. For the whites and blacks who kill each other; for the Muslims and Jews who hate each other; for the Christians who use their religion to condemn each other; for the poor, the rich, the homeless and heartless – for the Charlies and the Ahmeds – perhaps we all need to put it this way: Je suis. Tu es. C’est bon.