The late William Sloan Coffin, when he was chaplain at
would sometimes ask students, “Who tells you who you are?” Coffin knew all too
well the power of higher education to tell students who they are. Yale University
I ask myself, “Who tells me who I am?” My greatest regret is that for a large part of my life my need to be somebody—to be successful, popular, and important—influenced so many of my decisions and controlled so much of my thought. My ego, attached to American ideals of success, determined who I was.
In high school, I strove to be a stand-out basketball player so I would be popular. I danced to the music of whatever tune would win me applause.
One Sunday in church, a girl from another high school attended my Sunday School class. Attracted to her, I asked her out and we started dating. She was not popular and I began to catch drift of rumors questioning my judgment. She was a good person—real and authentic; I was shallow and superficial, driven by ego.
Without any explanation or reason offered I simply stopped seeing her. In keeping with my propensity for conflict avoidance, I stopped calling, without any consideration of how this might hurt her. It wasn’t until I began a more enlightened spiritual journey in the second half of life that I felt any regret or guilt about my actions.
Now I like to say that if one doesn’t have any regrets, that person is either a rare breed of goodness and authenticity, or completely lacking in self-awareness and/or honesty.
I lacked self-awareness. I was blind to the way my false self with all its attachments to ego and addiction to prestige and prominence pervaded my attitudes, aspirations, and actions.
I regret the many times and ways I failed to appreciate my wife for the sacrifices she made so I could pursue my institutional church work and goals. I assumed that she would comply with my decisions and I did not adequately value the contributions and investments she made. And yet it was her partnership in the work that enabled me to succeed.
I convinced myself that I was doing all this for God, but so much of what I did was for the accolades of others and the advancement of my career. Religious leaders can easily be more delusional than their parishioners.
I now mourn my egocentricity and lack of awareness. I am grateful, however, that I experienced something of a conversion. I cannot tell you when it happened, but at some point I decided that the pursuit of popular applause was meaningless. I began to see how destructive to my true self and harmful to others my self-centered pursuit of recognition had been.
I am glad that I am now on a journey to be more real, true, honest, and aware—aware that I am nothing but “a little shit,” but a little shit loved unconditionally by God and by family and friends. My awareness that I do not deserve this is humbling.
I love the dinner scene in the move, As Good as it Gets, where Carol (Helen Hunt) becomes so upset with Melvin (Jack Nicholson) for his total insensitivity and unawareness that she gets up to leave. Melvin begs her to stay. She says, “Then pay me a compliment. I need one now.” This deeply flawed and neurotic man says, “Carol, you make me want to be a better man.”
My hope and prayer is that the opinions of others will increasingly mean less and less, and I will be able to nurture this passion to become a better person—to love wastefully, to act graciously, to forgive magnanimously, and to live more honestly, humbly, and simply. Amen.
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For those interested in exploring a progressive Christian faith and spirituality I invite you to read my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls). http://www.nurturingfaith.info/?p=1297/