Be Who You Are

As part of my seminary training I spent a summer working as a hospital chaplain, assigned to the psychiatric floor. I found it to be deeply gratifying work, and I was able to build relationships with many of the patients. Some were long-term and others had a quick turnaround. Some were what we called "bouncers." These were people who would be admitted to the unit because of some behavioral issue—often times they had simply gone off their meds and needed to be re-stabilized—treated and then released. But within a matter of days or weeks, they’d "bounce back" to the unit again. In the course of my eight weeks at the hospital, some patients bounced several times.

My favorite bouncer was "Rose." Rose was a lovely woman who was about 80 years old who suffered from schizophrenia. Rose would be brought into the unit very agitated and aggressive, but within a day or so, with the proper medications, she’d be sweet as a peach. Rose and I had many long conversations about God and love and heaven, and she was rock-solid in her Baptist faith. During one of our conversations, Rose expressed to me her concern about all the people who were interviewing and examining her. She was tired of being treated like a lab rat, and told me that she was afraid to talk to the doctors. I tried to reassure her that they were there to help her, and I suggested that she be honest with them in answering their questions. "Just be yourself," I told her, "and they’ll take good care of you." Rose’s response to my sage advice was a priceless gem that I’ll never forget: "Be myself?" she said. "Of course I’ve got to be myself. Everybody else is already taken!"

Today is the third and final sermon in our series honoring Rev. Forrest Church, the pastor of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City for thirty years. Last month we sat with the first two parts of the mantra which he claimed served him well as he faced his death: "Want what you have." and "Do what you can." The third leg of this stool is the equally simple statement, "Be who you are." Let me first give you a short refresher on the first two statements before we dive into the third.

When Church urges us to "want what we have" he is not telling us to settle, but he’s reminding us that even when things look grim, there is much to be thankful for. He uses the metaphor of a window with many panes of glass, each pane representing one of the many aspects of our lives—our health, our job, our relationships. When one pane gets clouded over, he tells us, we must resist the urge to press our noses against that darkened pane, to the exclusion of all others. Instead, we should step back to allow the light from all the other panes to filter through. Church tells us to engage in "thoughtful wishing" rather than wishful thinking and thus to be grateful for all the gifts in our lives.

To "do what we can" is to recognize both our own power and our own limitations. He writes that "Doing what you can means doing all you can, no more and no less. It’s not just mucking by, but it’s not trying to do more than you can do, either, not stretching yourself out so far that you can’t help but force a failure." When we "do what we can" we seek to achieve the significant goals that lie within our power, and while we may risk failure, we don’t set ourselves up for certain defeat.

And now we find ourselves face to face with Church’s third admonition: "Be who you are." This is, he admits, the hardest task of all. Simply put, he tells us, to be who you are is not to "fake your existence." He writes that "each of us is unique, with unique flaws and gifts. The world doesn’t owe us a living; we owe the world a living, our very own." [1] In his book, Love and Death, Forrest Church tells of the opportunity he had, as the son of the US Senator Frank Church, to enter politics while he was still working on his doctorate in theology. After running his father’s presidential primary campaign in Nebraska, the son was ready to jump into the father’s footsteps and run for public office himself. Fortunately, he listened to his father’s advice to live his own life, not the life his father had led. And in doing so, writes the younger Church, "I found my calling. I answered a call that was mine, and not someone else’s." He goes on to tell us, "To envy another’s skills, looks, or gifts rather than embracing your own nature and call is to fail in two respects. In trying unsuccessfully to be who we aren’t, we fail to become who we are." [2]

"Be who you are." As Rose pointed out, it’s a rather inane concept. Of course you are who you are. You are who you are because everyone else is already taken. But if it’s so simple, then why do we spend so much of our lives trying to be who we’re not? Trying to be like someone else. Or trying to be the someone that someone else thinks, or wants, or makes us to believe we should be? In the words of May Sarton’s poem that we heard earlier, why do we spend so much of our lives "dissolved and shaken, [wearing] other peoples’ faces?" [3] To be who we are, who we were born to be, is no easy task.

Consider, for a moment, our childhood and how we learn most of what we come to know. Although our intellect develops the ability to discern and debate, our most basic form of learning is emulation. Or to put it in its simplest terms, copying. Like a giant game of "follow the leader," we grow up watching what others do and observing the outcomes. If we like what we see, we try to do the same, in hopes of gaining a similar result. From a very early age we are wired to "be like" rather than simply to "be." For some of us, this message was explicit: "Why can’t you be more like your brother/sister/cousin/fill-in-the-blank?" Our media convince us that to be accepted or happy or successful we need to act a certain way, drive a certain car, marry a member of the opposite sex. There’s a reason that the Rolling Stones song "Satisfaction" is still going strong some 45 years after its release. It speaks, in part, to the futility of trying to be the person that someone else thinks we should be.

When I’m watchin’ my TV
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ‘cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me.
I try and I try and I try
But I can’t get no Satisfaction

Role models are invaluable for us on both a societal and an individual level. They serve to inspire us and to motivate us, to consider what is possible. And there are certain traits or aspects of others that we should try to emulate. I grew up when Superman and Batman were all the rage on TV, and who can argue that we shouldn’t work for "truth, justice and the American way?" The danger comes, of course, when we try not just to be like our role models, but to become them. This is a recipe for disaster, a formula for failure. Neither you nor I will ever be more powerful than a locomotive or capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, so when we try to "be like Mike" (remember that Michael Jordan commercial?) we are destined for disappointment. Even if it’s not superheroes or pro athletes we try to model ourselves after. In Forrest Church’s case, he came close to making the mistake of trying to become like his father, the powerful Senator Frank Church of Idaho.

Sometimes the influences that exert their power over us are more subtle than this. We grow up in a family of achievers and, although nothing is explicitly stated, we incorporate the message that much is expected of us. A parent’s well-intentioned action sends a signal of what they hope for us, and we receive the gesture, consciously or subconsciously, as a mandate. If you hear things like "You’re so good in math, you should become a scientist" enough times as a child, you’re likely to believe you should become a scientist, and that your passion for dance or music or social work is misplaced. By the same token, if over and over again, you hear the message "You’ll never amount to anything," that, too, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The forces that dictate against being who we are are powerful and many. To be who we are can be like swimming upstream against a strong current of expectations and what I call the "tyranny of the should’s." And as if these forces aren’t enough to defeat us, to be who we are is made all the more challenging by our lack of self-knowledge and self-awareness. Perhaps the greatest challenge to living into Forrest Church’s mandate to "be who you are" is discovering just who and what that is.

Living in 21st century America, most of us are blessed with lives of comfort and relative ease, and so we can ask the questions, "Who am I?" and "What do I want to be when I grow up?" Many of us spend years of our lives and thousands of dollars in therapy to discover the answers to those questions. And in finding them, some of us "follow our bliss", to use Joseph Campbell’s term, while others, constrained by factors such as fear, family, or finances, remain living a life that is not our own until our days run out. In his book Let Your Life Speak, author and educator Parker Palmer tells of his journey of discovering his true self. He calls the "true self" the "self planted in us by the God who made us in God’s own image—the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be." [4]

To embark on the journey to discover this God-given self takes courage and commitment. It is risky business. It requires us to shed the masks and the costumes that populate our closets, to strip down to our naked selves and to take a close look in the mirror. There we are called to see ourselves and, perhaps more challenging yet, to claim ourselves, warts and all. Palmer puts it this way: "I know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light. I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it, but to embrace all of it." [5]

This might all seem like terribly narcissistic navel-gazing, but it is imperative that we discover our true selves and claim our wholeness in order to fulfill that other mandate we receive from Forrest Church, to "do what we can." When we fail to discover our true selves, when we cling to the personae that are nothing more than the masks we wear or the fulfillment of the expectations of others, it is easy to simply remain victims of our own condition. We are disempowered puppets, actors playing out a script not of our own making. We blame God, or our parents, or our partners for our circumstances. But when we do the hard work of discovering our true and authentic selves, of claiming our whole selves, we are called to live into those selves. "Embracing one’s wholeness," Parker Palmer writes, "makes life more demanding—because once you do that, you must live your whole life." [6] You must, in the words of Forrest Church, "Be who you are."

The good news is that it’s never too late. It’s never too late to start the journey of self-discovery, of shedding the skin that we’ve worn since our birth that has, like an ill-fitting suit, never felt quite right. May Sarton is testament to this fact. When she wrote the words "Now there is time and Time is young" she was 83 years old. It was at this chronologically advanced age that she discovered her true self and finally felt her "own weight and density."

To be who we are is to offer to the world the greatest gift we can give. To invest our lives and all that we do with sincerity, authenticity, and deep commitment leads us into relationships with other authentic selves. And in entering into those relationships, relationships that are sacred in the true meaning of that word, we cannot help but bring our collective power to bear against the forces of injustice, hatred and oppression. Our collective wholeness will, by definition, heal the world.

I would like to wrap up this sermon series by telling you one more story about Forrest Church. Forrest had what I consider to be a very public spiritual practice that he engaged in every week. Each Sunday he would conclude his sermon with the words "Amen. I love you. And may God bless us all." Just weeks before his death, he explained to his successor, Rev. Galen Guengrich, why he said "I love you" at the end of his sermons. "When I say ‘I love you’ from the pulpit," he told Galen, "something connects. I get connected to the congregation and they get connected to each other. It’s almost like, for a moment at least, we are part of each other, of something larger than ourselves. It’s ‘the human form of love divine,’ as Blake put it. And besides," Church went on, "someone once told me that I’m the only person in her life who ever says ‘I love you.’ She comes to church to hear someone say that she matters."

We all yearn to be told that we matter. That our true selves are worthy of love and capable of loving. In our common humanity we share our vulnerabilities and our sensitivities, and we offer them up here, on the altar of hope. I pray today that we may each find it within us, each and every day, to want what we have, to do what we can, and to be who we are.

Amen. I love you. May God bless us all.

Closing Words (from Parker Palmer):

Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks; we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. [7]


[1] Forrest Church, The Cathedral of the World, 175.
[2] Forrest Church, Love and Death, 111.
[3] May Sarton, "Now I Have Become Myself"
[4] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 68-69.
[5] Id, 70.
[6] Id, 71.
[7] Palmer, 16.