Who am I?

Diane Benge

I vividly recall a party I attended when I was in my twenties. The guest list was a veritable who's-who, a collection of so-called 'significant' people (of which I was not one, being present at the party only because I was staying in the host's house at the time). Big names in the professional, academic and theatre worlds stood around, drinks in hand. As the evening wore on I was introduced to a woman in her forties, the wife of a prominent surgeon, who asked me the inevitable question "And what do you do?"

Having recently resigned my teaching job at a local secondary school but not yet started the Correspondence school job I had been offered, I was for all intents and purposes a housewife, and I said as much. I have never forgotten her response. She simply turned on her heel and walked away!

It makes a good story to dine out on, but it was a somewhat shattering experience at the time. Once, when I was relating this story someone interjected with the comment: "But why didn't you tell her?"

"Why didn't I tell her what?" I asked.

"Well, that you were really a school teacher and not just a brainless housewife", was the reply.

The fact is that within a few months I became pregnant and before long I was a mother and a housewife, but I don't think that the change in my job status caused my brain to disappear from my cranial cavity! I was still me, I had the same personality, the same interests, the same education and the same abilities (well this is not actually strictly true, as learning to be a mother and a housewife saw me gain several extra abilities).

Somewhere along the line what-I-do-for-a-job has become intrinsically linked with who-I-am-as-a-person. It is considered perfectly reasonable to extrapolate from someone's job title how interesting, intelligent, talented, wealthy or otherwise that person may be, and to draw comprehensive conclusions as to the value of that person's contribution to society.

Is this how God evaluates people? Absolutely not. My employment status tells God nothing about who I am. He knows me far too well for that.

Asking what job someone does may be a useful indicator as to how that person spends a large part of their day, but it can never tell us who the person is. As Christians we are guardians of the holy truth that locked inside every human being is the image of God. That image unfurls in each one of us in ways that are entirely unique to each individual human being. This, and this alone, gives each person value.

In her book Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels tells of a highly respected and popular rabbi constantly harassed by those wanting his attention and his advice. Travelling by train between two villages the rabbi chooses to disguise himself as a peasant in order to secure himself some time for peaceful contemplation. Once on the train, however, he is scorned and abused by fellow travellers. Later these same travellers recognise who he actually is and, appalled at their behaviour, they beg his forgiveness. "We had no idea it was you", they say.

Michaels describes the rabbi's feelings during his ordeal. He is "familiar with humiliation but not humiliated, because, after all, it is a case of mistaken identity. His heart rises, he is not really the subject of this persecution; his heart falls, how can he prove, why should he prove, he is not what they think he is."

All of us must battle with the knowledge that who we are is who we are. The job we do, and the status it may or may not give us, does not (and cannot) alter the fact of our essential nature. It cannot make us more than we are, but neither can it make us less than we are.

Perhaps it is time to coin a new question. Maybe we should ask strangers not "And whatdo you do?" but rather, "And who are you? Tell me about yourself".

Who am I?

I am a unique person made in the image of God. And so are you.


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