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Who Am I?

May 21, 2023 Frontpage No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

A fundamental and unquestioned principle of philosophy is that a thing cannot be itself and something other than itself at the same time. A rose is a rose and cannot be, at the same time, a daffodil.
Today, that principle is not only questioned but has been overturned. It is no longer reason that determines first principles but “will.” The poor rose does not have a will. It must remain a rose as long as it lives. A person, however, no longer must be who he is, but has the right and the capacity to be whatever and whomever he wants to be.
There was a time when a person who declared himself to be Napoleon would be sent to a psychiatrist. Today, if a person made the same declaration, he is given an army. That army, supported and promoted by political correctness and a degree of sympathy that may be unknown in the annals of history, has waged war against the traditionalists who are, it is alleged, anchored to the past. If he thinks he is Napoleon, who are we to deny him that privilege of the will?
“Oh God,” beseeched St. Augustine, “I pray you let me know myself.”
The great saint was not urging his Maker to let him be nothing other than his one and only true self. Our true identity is not always clear to us. We need help from above to know who we are and to have the courage to be who we are. Augustine became a saint. Apparently, his prayer was answered. We know about his struggles to be his authentic self in reading his Confessions. The road to sanctity is the one that bears our name.
We now live in a very odd world. Award-winning novelist Walker Percy became a Catholic because he found it was real. The titles of two of his books attest to the challenge we all have in finding sense in a senseless world: Lost in the Cosmos, and Signposts in a Strange Land.
There was a time, and not very long ago, when motherhood was a universally honored landmark in a confusing world. Motherhood and apple pie were held to be as unassailable as they were American. Children know unfailingly who their mother is. “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children,” wrote the American novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray. Reproductive technology blurred the notion of mother. Was the surrogate the real mother or was it the one who contributed the egg? Was the genetic mother the real mother or was it the one who raised the child? Biology gave way to preference and new definitions of motherhood.
Andrea Stumpf, a Yale attorney, redefined motherhood as belonging to the one who first had the “mental concept.”
The notion of mother has become even more blurred in the brave new world of gender-change. Today, through gender reassignment where a man becomes a “woman,” together with adoption, a biological male can claim to be a mother. A man today is not restricted to being a man. He can also be a woman and who knows what else? Perhaps a trans-human!
Enchanted by the magic flute of “inclusivity,” some institutions of learning have canceled Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations because they are not inclusive. Since a Supreme Court Justice cannot define “woman” and mother is too singular to meet the inclusivity test, our ignorance allows us to become more spacious. If we do not know anything, then anything is possible. If we do not know what a mother is, we can extend the meaning to all non-mothers.
Equality, in the new sense, means that everyone is the same and that no one can have a distinctive, unchanging identity. But to include everyone is to eliminate any motivation for a person to be himself, and achieve his authentic, unique identity.
In his encyclical letter, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II states: “The admonition ‘Know yourself’ was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings,’ that is as those who ‘know themselves’.” Knowing oneself is basic. Without this knowledge of who a person is, he is ill equipped to know what he is supposed to do or begin to understand the meaning of his life. This is, the now canonized saint tells us, is a “minimal norm.”
For the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, despair about who I am can be divided into two distinct types. One is “despair of weakness” in which a person feels that the identity God gave him is too much for him to achieve. He feels too weak to carry out the mission that God has set for him. The other is “despair of defiance” in which a person, out of pride, rejects his true identity because he wants a different one than the one God had in mind for him.
Has despair, in the sense that Kierkegaard understands it, overtaken many Americans who misinterpret it as freedom? Freedom has always been an essential characteristic of the American spirit. But freedom has validity when it is the freedom to be one’s self. The rejection of self is a misuse of freedom. From Socrates to John Paul II, “know thyself” is the first step to being one’s self and acting accordingly. Without this self-knowledge, one’s life will be misdirected, and a profound sense of frustration and lost opportunity will be the inevitable result.

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