Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?
When will my reflection show, who I am, inside?
~ Reflection, in Mulan
Watched a Youtube video of a 4-year-old belting out this song and I was reminded of it in prayer because I have been reflecting about authenticity.
There is so much cognitive dissonance in me as I have experimented with different identities during the course of my life. I would mold myself to fit the social context like a chameleon without understanding and building a strong core of who I was.
In university, I was heavily involved in the Catholic community on campus and I was even given opportunities to lead. After a leadership training program ended, the facilitator told me that I have a simple faith. Although it was meant to affirm me, I took slight offense because I wanted to be something more. I craved intelligence, wisdom and street smarts; but I was none of this. I was and am the sweet, simple and silly girl-next-door. It took me a decade to realize that having child-like faith is a gift, as St Therese of Lisieux would agree.
In my third year of university, I attended an exchange program in California. It was my first time living abroad and traveling independently. I was empowered and gained confidence, but this only served to increase my pride and avarice. My social standing had supposedly been elevated by my newfound experiences and I was seen as good enough for the cool clique who now wanted to include me. I set out to consciously define myself as a cosmopolitan individual and build my identity as such. I sought out further overseas exposure in my studies and work. My head of department encouraged this elitist mindset and I felt affirmed in the eyes of society that I was finally somebody. Unknown to my 20-year-old self, this mindset set the stage for a nightmarish decade of my life.
I created what Merton terms as “false selves”.
“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.
Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them.
And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
Rather than prayerfully discern my unique God-directed vacation, I relentlessly pursued worldly ambitions to gain the respect that I did not receive in my family. I embarked on jobs that appealed to me in terms of prestige and salary. This resulted in a decade of failed work endeavors and broken relationships.
“Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under the pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly.” – Thomas Merton
Although I pursued holiness by participating in prayer meetings and retreats, I never felt any lasting peace and sense of unity. This gnawing feeling of something missing is because God never intended me, or anyone, to live a life of superficiality.
“This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. If I never become what I am meant to be, but always remain what I cannot, I shall spend eternity contradicting myself by being at once something and nothing, a life that wants to live and is dead, a death that wants to be dead and cannot quite achieve its own death because it still has to exist.” – Thomas Merton
I did not submit to God’s will but instead, trusted the fickle world to define me. One bad decision led to another. I pressed on even though my studies was not life-giving and affected my health and relationships. Despite attempts by my loved ones to persuade me to give up, I did not do so because I was afraid to be seen as a failure. I convinced myself to persevere at all costs, to compensate for my past job failures. My past colored my ability to discern what is best for me, at present.
“I love my captivity and I imprison myself in the desire for the things that I hate, and I have hardened my heart against true love. I must learn therefore to let go of the familiar and the usual and consent to what is new and unknown to me. I must learn to “leave myself” in order to find myself by yielding to the love of God. For in giving myself I shall find Him and He is life everlasting”. – Thomas Merton
Things came to a head when I was faced with a debilitating illness. The intense suffering became the most grace-filled moment of my life! It made me realize that life is a precious gift and that we must use it wisely.
I have always prayed to God regarding my career and He finally answered. Or rather, I finally listened. First, I had to let go of my studies which were not life-giving. I had to give up the ‘false self’ and beliefs that I was only respectable and worthy if I obtained my doctorate.
We become detached from ourselves in order to see and use all things in and for God. – Thomas Merton
When I finally prayerfully and tearfully gave up my doctorate, I felt lost and was besieged with fear and uncertainty regarding the next step.
Who am I and what is my calling?
Yet God reminds me in prayer, to be patient and to trust in His providence.
“Humility consists in being precisely the person you actually are before God.
We are called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. Wework out our salvation (and it) is a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears. It demands close attention to reality in every moment and great fidelity as He reveals Himself, obscurely the mystery of each new situation.
My discovery of my identity begins and is perfected because it is in them that God Himself who knows the secret of who I am, begins to live in me, not only as my Creator, but as my other and true self. Vivo, iam non ego, vivit vero in me Christus (“I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me”). – Thomas Merton
This story has no fairy tale ending since I am work-in-progress. But I resolve to have child-like faith and trust in God; and to ponder all these things in my heart, just like Mother Mary.