Who am I, and what am I doing?

“I hurried to the gate, made my way on to the plane, stowed my luggage, and sat down next to Mother Teresa! I smiled and made eye contact. She politely said, ‘So, who are you? And what do you do in this world that matters?’”

The keynote speaker who told this amazing story continued.

“I wanted to answer that I’m somebody who does things that really matter, and I do those things well. But I wasn’t convinced my goals, successes, and education were at the depth of Mother Teresa’s questions.”

On the surface, these questions are easy to me. I’m a pastor who has three degrees in higher theological education. I teach on the seminary level as well as work full time in admissions. I’m the husband of a talented and skilled mental health professional who spends her days being a change agent for the homeless community, and I’m a father to the best baby in the world.

But I’m also more than that.

I’m someone who fears failing. I’m someone who hates letting other people down, and I loathe the parts of myself that are lazy. I’m someone who wishes I had more time to myself as well as more time with my family. I care too much about insignificant sporting events and dwell too long on what other people think of me.

When I’m my best self, I’m someone who helps others navigate the liminal space between the mundane and the sacred. When I’m my worst self, I’m someone who embroiders the truth just enough to please the room.

I’m stuck between the surface and the deeper, more intimate answers to Mother Teresa’s questions.

We’re people who need a place to stand; a reason to feel whole; a hope that surpasses understanding. But instead of taking the time to reflect on the shadow sides of our soul, I fear we answer Mother Teresa’s first question by deferring to her second one: “I am what I do.”

What we do with our time, money, and energy to help move the world forward matters. Since our days make up our years, what we do day-to-day to effect change, create beauty, and empower hope is worth thinking about. We should be people who reflect deeply on this question, but not to the point that it answers the question, “Who am I?”

Richard Rohr said that 90% of the world lives 90% of their lives on a conveyor belt. We define our lives by what we do, and it becomes so repetitious that we stop reflecting in a meaningful way on who we really are.

When we answer “Who am I?” with “Here’s what I do,” we’re saying our careers and hobbies define us. We become people who “do” some things.

We find it uncomfortable to strip away our accomplishments to see ourselves for who we really are, but isn’t it worth doing? Do we really want 90% of our life to go by without knowing ourselves the way God knows us? Isn’t that why Mother Teresa asked her questions the way she did?

Who are you? And what do you do in this world that matters? We need to realize the power behind both of these questions and create meaningful space to reflect on each.

Barrett Owen

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About the Author
Barrett Owen is the associate director of admissions at Mercer University's McAfee School of Theology and pastor of National Heights Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga. He blogs weekly at Liminality: Exploring the holy, in-between spaces.

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