Song of the Self

January 5, 1997


Song of the Self

I read last week about a custom in a certain East African tribe where a lovely touch of social grace follows children from the beginning to the end of their lives. Actually, from before the beginning of their lives, because in this tribe the birth date of a child is not counted from the day of its physical birth, nor even from the day of conception, as in some other village cultures. For this tribe, the birth date comes the first time the child is a thought in its mother’s mind. When she becomes aware of her intention to conceive a child with a particular father, the mother goes off to sit alone under a tree. There she sits and listens until she can hear the song of the child that she hopes to conceive. Once she has heard it, she returns to her village and teaches it to the father so that they can sing it together as they make love, inviting the child to join them.
After the child is conceived, she sings the song to the baby in her womb. Then she teaches it to the old women and midwives of the village so that throughout the labor and at the miraculous moment of birth itself, the child is greeted with its personal song. After the birth, all the villagers learn the song of their newest member, and they sing it to the child on occasions when it falls or hurts itself. Through adolescence it is sung in times of triumph, and in ritual and initiation ceremonies. When the child is grown and ready to begin a family, the song becomes a part of the marrage ceremony, and at the end of life, his or her loved ones gather around the deathbed and sing this song for the last time.
Such a child would be defined in other ways, of course: as lazy or hardworking in village life, as brave or cowardly out on the hunt, but that special song belonging to no one else would be a big help in establishing a unique identity. Even if you had so little going for you that people simply overlooked you most of the time, you could always go off by yourself and sing the song that belonged only to you. In a way, I suppose, that’s what an American poet named Walt Whitman is doing when he begins his most famous poem by saying, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” — the confident words of a man certain of his identity.
In recent years, it has been fashionable, especially among bright young people, to talk of not knowing who they are and of how important it is to “find themselves.” Psychology and literature have made much of what is called an “identity crisis,” and one wish heard often in counselling sessions is this one: “If only I could find out who I am.” It may be a kind of posturing at times, a way of sounding chic, but everybody has an occasional identity crisis, and some people seem never to know exactly who they are and what they stand for. It can be risky, by the way, to put on others the responsibility for our identity. We may be shocked at the one they give us. Do you remember the story told about ex-President George Bush a few years ago? He was supposedly visiting a nursing home, where he took the hand of an elderly man walking the halls and asked in a kindly way, “Sir, do you know who I am?” The man looked very sympathetic and said, “No, but if you ask the nurses they can tell you.” If you haven’t guessed by now, this is a sermon about the importance of identity.
People achieve identities in a bewildering variety of ways. First of all with the help of just about everybody in the primal pack: parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles — playing a variation on that African tribal song, telling us we are pretty or slow or dumb or clumsy or sissy or superstar, and all when we are too young and unsophisticated to ask, “Am I really?” So that by the time we begin to create an identity for ourselves, we are already carrying more baggage than we realize.
I mentioned to you once a classic example from the life of a former parishioner and close personal friend who could never quite manage to stop hearing the dreadful song his father sang to him while he was growing up. Probably not as often as this person now remembers, but it doesn’t take many times if it comes from your father. Not when he says, “You know, you’re just a dumb kid,” or summons him like this on occasion: “Hey, dummy, come over here a minute.” My friend grew up to be strong, handsome, extremely personable, and successful in business, but the self-doubt planted by his unthinking father has gnawed away at him, deep inside, all of his life. Tampering carelessly with a child’s self-concept is dangerous business.
Even on the most elementary level we have to know who we are. I once innocently teased a little boy by saying to him, “What’s your name?” and when he said, “Randy,” I said, “No, I’m Randy…..your name is George.” “No,” he said, “I’m Randy,” and for a moment or so it was only play but I suddenly saw the moment when actual doubt crept into his mind as to who he really was, and he was terrified, and I had to stop that game quickly and say, “You’re right, Randy. I know who you are, and I was just teasing.”
Sometimes, in a world like ours, there is no tribal song of the self from a loving mother and father and a child comes into the world to be at the total mercy of strangers. Take a man like Thomas Bridges. Since someone found him as a baby near a river bridge, he was given the last name of Bridges. But he needed a first name, this throwaway with no identity, so since he was found on St. Thomas’ Day, his first name became Thomas. None of this sounds like a very auspicious beginning, but in time Thoams Bridges found something to stand for that gave him a real identity. Moved by an idealism that came from heaven knows where, he picked out about the toughest job that could be found in his day: working with the aborigines of Tierra del Fuego at the desolate southern end of South America….the end of the world.
I know about him because I am fascinated by the life of Charles Darwin, and I know that during his famous five-year voyage on the Beagle Darwin once put ashore for a while at that forlorn place. He was astonished when bareskinned native women came down to the shore to greet him in the middle of a snow-and-sleet storm, some of them nursing babies as naked as the day they were born. As Darwin watched icy pellets falling on all that bare skin without apparent discomfort or harm to either mothers or infants, it struck him as proof of the marvelous adaptability of living things and became part of his theory of evolution. It was in that godforsaken place that he learned about the work of our Mr. Thomas Bridges, and although he had felt earlier that there was not much point in mission work among people on that level of animal existence, he was so impressed by that he later sent back a generous contribution.
I’m sure most of us, myself certainly included, would have had the same initial reaction Darwin did: to pity Thomas Bridges in that lost and neglected corner of the world. But as Darwin soon realized, it was wasted pity. Better to reserve pity for those who need it — self-centered, parasitic, uninterested and uninteresting people who never find anything to take them out of themselves. Thomas Bridges needed no pity. He had found the secret of happiness: his own song, a unique identity, something to stand for that made him feel worthwhile. He would not have traded lives with anyone.
He illustrates, by the way, an interesting aspect of human life: our capacity to represent something. We may not be all that much in ourselves, but we can identify with something larger, so that when people think of us, they think of that. Here is a true story that makes the point. A university professor colleague in another state recalls two young college boys he once had as students who decided — on a lark — one afternoon, years ago when an X-rated film was quite a novelty, to slip off and see one. They knew it was crude (the advertisements had made that clear) but they wanted the thrill of going to see what was not respectable in their day.
That afternoon, while they were there, a fire broke out in the rather sleazy little theater and the two boys, sitting near a fire escape, could have walked easily to safety. But when they looked back they saw that people were starting to panic, that a few bored housewives who had brought small children for lack of babysitter money were in danger of being trampled and that unless somebody took quick action there would be a tragedy. So they elected to stand on each side of the door, holding back the hysterical crowd, pushing women and children to safety, until finally one of them was pushed off the landing by the mob and could not get back up inside to help, while the other — trapped inside — caught fire from the flames. Before he died of burns three days later that young man told his mother that he was at peace with himself and that she should not be bitter over what happened. “I have no regrets,” he told her. “I think I was the last person to leave the theater alive.”
What a strange duality there is in human nature! Think of the mood the boys were in when they bought their tickets, and think what they came to represent before the afternoon was over. It would be unfair, I think — certainly it would be ungracious — to judge them by what they were on the way in. They found a new song of the self before the afternoon was over. I have seen something like that happen so many times, over a lifetime, that I hope for it even against the odds….and I know how formidable the odds seem at times.
Because, like you, I read almost every day about political greed and partisan-ship so rank they make me sick. I read about con artists ripping off vulnerable people. My son, home for the holidays, leaves his Jeep Cherokee overnight at a reputable repair shop only to discover, the next morning, that thieves have skilfully made off with the entire front grill. We learn ways of coping, even if we wish we didn’t have to. For one thing a kind of wry humor helps. I just read about a man named Frank Mullen who lives in New York City where garbage piles up on the streets at times in some of the biggest and longest garbage strikes in the country. Frank figured out how to beat it when a garbage strike was called just before Christmas. He wrapped his garbage daily as if it were a Christmas gift and put it in the back seat of his car, leaving the car door unlocked. Invariably, he said, by morning a thief would have stolen the package.
But I remind myself that those things make news because they are still unusual. Imagine a culture in which those things are too common to mention, while simple daily acts of decency and kindness make the headlines because they are so rare. That would really be a time for despair! I keep reminding myself of couples who rescue abandoned babies and give them a loving future, of people every single day in this city and others who inconvenience themselves to find the owner of a lost wallet or purse, of all the kids in classrooms every day who refuse cheat on exams, and keep honesty alive by representing it. There are still too many decent people for news hours and headlines to single out.
We are still considering identity, and I was heartened a few days ago to read about a young television star who decided suddenly she no longer cared for the identity fame had brought and wanted to return to the joys of family and of times when one could know a moment’s peace. She abruptly gave up notoriety and fortune on the popular show ER, not because she wanted more money or better lines, but simply because she wanted a “regular” life, free of l5-hour days on the set with off-hours spent memorizing medical jargon. So, she said, she was going home to her boyfriend and her family in New York, and “cook pasta.” Some people, she admitted, would question this from the point of view of the American work ethic, but at 28 she felt she had lost the joys of real life and wanted them back. I found myself thinking, OK, somebody has to start a trend.
And then, inevitably, I thought of the words of Jesus: “What will it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own song.” You’re right. What he actually said was “lose your own soul “ but “song of the self” — “soul” — there’s really no difference. His famous question has to do with identity, so I leave you now with another one: What do you suppose people think of ……when they think of you? And does the answer you come up with …..make you happy?

Go with each one of us, Eternal God, into this new week
of a brand new year, and guide us into the daily discovery
of a better self. Amen.