By Teresa Carale, MHI President
In one of the most riveting scenes in the musical Les Miserables, Javert apologizes to Jean Valjean (disguised as Monsieur Madeleine, the mayor of the town) for doubting his identity. He informs the mayor that they have caught the escaped criminal, Jean Valjean, and that he is awaiting trial. The real Jean Valjean faces a morally pivotal point, as the song “Who am I?” articulates: “If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!” What should he do? The song continues, “Who am I? Can I condemn this man to slavery; pretend I do not feel his agony. This innocent who bears my face, who goes to judgment in my place…”
Many go about their daily lives trapped in what seems like a never-ending succession of actions. What should I do next? We often forget why we do these things in the first place. To lead rich, meaningful lives, we have to stop and ponder Jean Valjean’s fundamental question: Who am I? Self-identity is more than mere self-knowledge─of my likes and dislikes, my personality, my strengths and weaknesses. All of these things are important, but they do not define “who I am.” And that is why we allude to it as a quest─of short or long duration.
In the seminar “Resisting the Mentality of ‘Total Work’─in Search of a Fulfilling and Integrated Life,” Dr. Margarita Mooney talked about the danger of defining ourselves based on the product of our work, instead of the process of our work. “We live in the era of what philosopher Josef Pieper called the world of ‘total work’, in which our identity is so tied up with the product of our work that we forget to nurture our contemplative, joyful, and vulnerable sides.” There is wisdom in focusing on the process─how we do our work, and not only the product of our work. The “how” reveals values, priorities, interpersonal relationships, one’s vision of the world.
Sometimes it helps to ask “what do I want written in my obituary?” That question speaks to who I want to be. And the answer to that question guides our quest for self-identity, and frames our actions and decisions accordingly─in our personal and professional lives, in our families, in society, in the world at large. “Who am I” determines how I speak, how I dress, how I relate to others, how I behave in the workplace and in social situations. There is integrity and the consequent interior peace when words, thoughts and actions are consistent with one’s identity. Authenticity is a quality that is valued in all situations, just as duplicity is decried.
It is worthwhile to embark or continue on this quest for self-identity. Only thus can we be effective protagonists in transforming the world and making it a better place.