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The Quest for Self-Identity

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.

Review of Self-Esteem without Selfishness: Increasing Our Capacity for Love

By Alice Trimmer

Self-doubt, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-loathingit is essential to have a good relationship with oneself in order to function well in life and to establish healthy relationships with others. But how does one develop self-esteem without going overboard and becoming an egoist? This is the question that is exhaustively explored in Michel Esparza’s book Self-Esteem without Selfishness, published in Spain in 2010, and recently made available in an excellent English translation by Devra Torres (Scepter Press, 2013).

This topic will be familiar to devotees of self-help books, but Esparaza’s solution is no quick fix. Esperza describes the balance between arrogance and the kind of false humility that saps initiative as “humble self-esteem,” and he makes it clear that the effort to achieve this balance is one that necessarily has to last a lifetime.

The book is divided into two parts:  Part 1 “Pride and Its Difficulties” explores the twisted nature of the situations we can get into through a misunderstanding of how to view ourselves. Part 2 “Towards a Definitive Solution” sets out in depth a way to develop “humble self-esteem” and in the process, enjoy a happy life. Esparza is a Catholic priest, so it is no surprise that his solution involves a deep spiritual journey. He also holds a medical degree and thus is well equipped to explore his topic from a wide variety of perspectives: physical, psychological, and emotional. One of the pleasures of the book is the wealth of quotations from literature and philosophy that he employs to illustrate his points. Although this book is written from a Catholic perspective, the author approaches his topic in a way that people of all faiths can understand, and all can certainly benefit from the insights offered. 

The subtitle of the book, “Increasing our Capacity for Love” gives a clue to the basic premisethat a rightly ordered love of self is the first step in enabling ourselves to give to others, whether in a romantic relationship or through the love of friendship. Drawing on classical philosophy, Esparza gives a lucid account of the different kinds of love as well as tips on how to navigate one’s way toward self-giving. His insights on the differences in communication styles between men and women, and the connection that these differences have with needs, understanding, and trust, are clear and incisive, and can be profitably employed in the workplace as well as in family life.

The search for the right kind of self-esteem is of particular interest to young people, as they seek to answer the question “What kind of person do I want to be?” At Rosedale, the educational center in the Bronx where I work, the Program Directors used excerpts from Chapter 1 as part of our fall volunteer training. Both the high school and college students found it refreshing, understandable, and engaging, and the readings led to many fruitful discussions.

Alice Trimmer is on the Board at Murray Hill Institute and is the Director of Rosedale Center for Girls in the Bronx.