All of us at one time or another have faced the question, “Who am I?” and that question naturally opens up the question that naturally follows it, “Why am I here?” It’s the question we ask of ourselves as creatures with consciousness about whom we are, why we exist, and can distinguish ourselves from the rest of the created order.
When in doubt (as most of us are on occasion), we should go to the doctor … Dr. Seuss, that is:
If you’d never been born, then what would you be?
You might be a fish or a toad in a tree.
You might be a doorknob or three baked potatoes.
Worse than all that, you might be a wasn’t.
A wasn’t just isn’t. He (or she) just isn’t present.
But you – you are you, and it’s truer than true
That there’s no one alive who is you-er than you.
When I was a child, I learned what a surprise it was to my parents that I was conceived. Never did I hear them call me an “oops” baby, but since I was born 50 weeks after my older brother, who was born nine months after their wedding, I was the surprise that arrived before they could celebrate their second anniversary.
Why are you here? The Bible tells us we are here because God wanted us to be here. While we all have unique birth stories, in the deepest of truths behind those birth stories we learn God created us and as God’s children we are meant to have fellowship with God, to be God’s girl or boy, God’s man or woman, here in this place and in this life, right now and throughout our lives.
Hear the blessing from the creation story in Genesis: Then God said, “‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’” … God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”
Our faith offers us a simple yet meaningful answer to the question of existence. We are a special creation of God. We are more than a fish or a toad or a clam; we are the very image of God. Woman or man, fresh-faced and freckly, or bent over and wrinkled, we are here because God wants us here. We are here because God put us here.
We cannot help ask the question of existence at various stages of life. We first ask, “Who am I and why am I here?” when we’re young. Often the answer comes in the form as borrowed identity from our parents or an older sibling who loans us a transferable part of their identity.
First I was Delbert and Libby’s surprise second boy. Then I was Donnie’s little brother. But eventually I learned I had my own identity, earned mostly or wholly on my own merits based on those things I did well and those things I did poorly. I had to rise or fall on my own according to my sense of self and my willingness to live a truthful life.
I didn’t know it then, but in the contract of life I accepted by being born, I was made a steward of my life. I was given charge of this body and all my relationships and the work I did and all the love I shared as a responsibility to the One who made me and launched me in the world. I may have been Delbert and Libby’s surprise little boy, but I learned I was also my own self, made by God and given responsibilities to do something hopeful with the life I found myself in charge of.
But the question is one we face at all the important stages of life and again after childhood I pondered the meaning. I revised and updated my self-image based on my decision to marry and again when I became a father to two children who looked to me for the needs of their lives not to mention guiding them toward answering the questions of existence for themselves. I worked my way through several layers of education and experience as a minister and the nature of the question deepened as I lived an existential life, meaning I could not be a minister without living with a deep knowing of my own identity.
A 24-year old young woman in Biloxi Mississippi was so despondent about her life she jumped from a wharf in an attempt to end her life. As she later said, she was simply “tired of living.” But it also happened that a man saw her jump and thrashed about in the water and he knew in a flash what she was doing. Forgetting that he didn’t know how to swim, he stripped off his coat in dived in after her. When he came up, he thrashed in the water and was in serious danger of drowning himself. The woman saw this in amazement and paddled over to him. He gulped water down with his open mouth as he bobbed up and down in the water so she grabbed him and pulled him from the water. Instead of taking her own life, she saved the man from drowning.
In that crucial moment, when she saw this young man struggling for his own life, her own life suddenly had meaning. She suddenly had something that had been missing before. What drowned beneath the wharf was not her spirit but her despair.
Most of us face the question of purpose with a sense of dread or anxiety because we’re afraid the answer to the question will just be another opportunity to feel shame or guilt over how our lives have been underwhelmingly lived.
But many know the question continues persistently to the later stages of life. Older adults sometimes ask, “Why am I here?” But that question comes more honestly, “Why am I still here?” Often the question is voiced in the shadow of some dark illness or the loss of one’s partner in life. The question is typically wearying and often asked out of some sense of despair.
A woman, who eventually lived to see her 101st birthday, found the courage to answer the question of “Why?” this way: She determined that as long as she had life and breath, she would pray. No longer was she able to do the things that had defined her life. So she faithfully prayed for her church and her pastor. She prayed for her friends who might be experiencing sickness or loneliness. She gave herself to a new purpose after her body no longer gave her strength to work. She adopted a new self-identity for the last stage of life reflecting her acceptance of her contract with her existence.
In truth, we are stewards of this life and it’s ours to live, but it’s not ours to live for us alone. It’s a gift from God meant to guide us toward service and sacrifice.