Saturday, July 09, 2005

How Do I Know Who I Am?

I am Franklin Mason, born September 8th, 1968 in Columbus, Ohio. If I had committed a crime and my identity was a mystery to you, you would need nothing more than what I just now told you. In some sense, this is who I am. It is my identity. But from a certain point of view, it is of little significance. If you wish to know the quality of the man, what at bottom he is like, you must know more.

Last night as I lay awake and reviewed the events of the day (I often do this) I realized that for the whole of my adult life I have labored under a certain illusion. It is that to know not who I am but what at bottom I am like, I need only look inside and find what I happen to think or feel. My timbre, I thought, was open to immediate and direct introspection. Thus I would often look to how I felt or what I thought at a certain time and would judge myself based upon this. Sometimes I would judge myself harshly if I did not feel or think as I thought I should. I read of the pains endured by another and did not feel what I thought was the proper sympathy. I upbraided myself for my insensitivity. I read a bit about the U.S.S.R. under Stalin and began to project myself into the point of view of Stalin and began to think for a moment as did he. When I had realized what I had done, I thought myself to have begun to have a taste for the cruelty in which Stalin so evidently delighted. I condemned myself.

What I realized is that one cannot know one's self in this way. Rather one must come to know oneself in the way that others do. One must observe how one behaves. What we wish to know when we seek after the quality of a man is the make-up of his character. But we can know our own character only if we have observed its expression in our behavior; and this cannot be introspected directly and immediately but is rather an external process that all can observe.

How do I know that I tend to petulance? I have seen myself act petulantly. How do I know that I am quick to anger? I have seen myself become angry quickly. And so on for the rest.

So when you catch a glimpse of an errant thought that you wish had not entertained, do not yet self-flagellate. Do you ever act upon that thought or its kin? If not, do not worry. If you do, worry not about the thought but about the behavior. If the behavior is brought in line, so too will thought.

If you do not feel that warm sympathy you imagine other better people to feel when in the face of the pain of another, do not yet condemn yourself as cold and cruel. Rather ask yourself how you behave when others are in need. Do you help? If so, don't fret about how you happen to feel. If you do not help, change the behavior, for that is your primary sin and not your momentary lack of sympathy.

I do not wish to say that what we happen to think or to feel at a time is of no importance. Rather it is of secondary importance. What matters most is what we do. I hope of course that I will feel and think in those ways that seem appropriate to me. But I hope that in the future I will not much concern myself with them. Rather I will seek to look to what I do. Will I someday feel and think always in the proper way? I hope that God will grant me that grace.

On reflection, this is no surprise to me. For I am what I will, and what is most important about me is that which will immediately controls. But will has no immediate control over what I feel or think (perhaps it has less control of the former than of the latter, but thought still often slips through its fingers). Rather, will immediately controls action. It is the spring of action, it is the guide of action, it is that which ends action.

So look then at what you do. For there you will see your will made external and thus will see yourself.

This is why the man who leaves his wife because he no longer feels the passion he once felt is deeply mistaken about what is of value. What he happens to feel at a certain time pales in comparison to what he does. But if he betrays his wife because he does not feel as he thinks he ought, he has placed emotion over quality of character and thus revealed himself as stupid and selfish.

3 comments:

C Grace said...

You say we are not completely in control of our feelings and thoughts, but are we completely in control of our actions? How do I reconcile the fact that I don't always do what I wish, or that in a moment of anger I may do what I despise? If I dispise it, did I really will it to be done?

If there is a man of strong will who thinks much about killing someone, but doesn't because he can't figure out a way of doing it without getting caught, is he then better than the weak willed man who in a moment of passion strikes a man and kills him?


So 1. Do one's actions constitute the quality of a man if his will is not entirely in control of him?

2. Where do we fit intention in?

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