“Try to do your duty and you will soon find out what you are.” Well, you don’t get more existential than that.
Goethe here reflects a long tradition of philosophical insight – stemming from Socrates to Kierkegaard – by calling his readers to know themselves, not by mere intellectual reflection, but by taking note of their own actions in their day-to-day lives.
This is an insight with deep Scriptural roots as well. The Apostle Paul calls his readers to “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2Cor 13:5). Paul here refers to the life lived in God which is evidenced by the power of God, active in a believer’s life. In essence, if one’s life lacks the evidence of the power of God, regardless of what one might think he believes about God, it is clear that he is not in the faith, and without faith one is not saved.
The true self is revealed not by what one claims to believe, but by what one actually does. One’s spiritual-ethical life (if it can be expressed as such) is mere imagination if it is not located within one’s active radius of life, “fleshed out,” visible for him and the whole world to see. And this is the great challenge of life—of finding meaning in life—for each of us. One can hardly claim to find meaning in life when one’s own self is still locked in mystery.
But, presented here in a nutshell, in a ‘thought-bomb,’ Goethe reminds me of volumes of teaching I have gained from the great saints and fathers of the Christian faith: the hope that my true self need not be a mystery; that my true self is a discovery as close at hand as my own capacity for honest self-appraisal, ever-accessible by simple attentiveness to my actions in daily life.
But why, if it’s as easy as taking account of my actions, is it so difficult to carry out this self-awareness? And why is this lack of awareness so prevalent, not only in the world at large, but among Christians by the scores? I can’t speak for everyone, but after a bit of self-inspection I can admit my own hang up – I’m terrified! Terrified of what I may actually find if I stop long enough to take honest inventory of my life and hold it to the standard penned by St. Paul. What if I believe all the right things but my life is contradictory to those beliefs? What will I think of myself if it is revealed by such a test that I am the sort of person whom I seek to help personally and professionally? What if I’m the sufferer who needs the help I claim to be able to give others? Worse yet, what if after all this learning, after all this striving, I myself have become “disqualified” as Paul, again, puts it: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to other I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor 9:27). There it is again—the Scriptural emphasis on the relationship between the spiritual and the physical; on the ideal with the real.
Thankfully, the Father is always standing in the doorway awaiting the return of the “prodigal son.” But no return is possible until the courage to face one’s own true state is ventured.
As a new father, an armchair theologian, and counselor in training these are becoming important issues in my life. I don’t want my children, my wife, my friends, and my clients receiving a fake me—a me existing in my imagination, but in reality a fraud.
Just some thoughts on this Friday afternoon.