Finding Your Identity By Asserting Yourself

While reading Thomas Merton’s classic, New Seeds of Contemplation, I came across a passage that might be the most powerful passage on identity and self-assertion I have ever read. He writes:

People who know nothing of God and whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all.

They can only conceive one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. They do not know that reality is to be sought not in division, but in unity, for we are “members one of another.”

The man who lives in division is not a person but only an “individual.”

I have what you have not. I am what you are not. I have taken what you have failed to take and I have seized what you could never get. Therefore you suffer and I am happy, you are despised and I am praised, you die and I live; you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing. And thus I spend my life admiring the distance between you and me; at times this even helps me to forget the other men who have what I have not and who have taken what I was too slow to take and who have seized what was beyond my reach, who are praised as I cannot be praised and who live on my death…

The man who lives in division is living in death. He cannot find himself because he is lost; he has ceased to be a reality. The person he believes himself to be is a bad dream. And when he dies he will discover that he long ago ceased to exist because God, Who is infinite reality and in Whose sight is the being of everything that is, will say to him: “I know you not.” (47-48)


(By the way, I am starting a podcast. The Thinking and Believing Podcast should launch at the start of June. I am already working on the first episode. It will be about topics that I’ve written about over the years on this blog — theology, philosophy, politics, etc. — but with an approach that is quite different than the one I take on this blog. Stay tuned for more updates about it.)

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