Who Am I? (a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
This is the most beautiful poem about self-doubt that I have ever read. Written in his jail cell, it was one of the last Bonhoeffer wrote before his execution by the Nazis for his ties to the July 20, 1944 conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer’s anguish and self-doubt ring so true they capture me. I cry out together with him. How many times have I found myself holding down contempt, prejudice, judgement, anger with one hand and blessing with the other? How many times am I harboring fear, hopelessness, even despair in my heart, but praising God with my mouth? People say, “Oh what a wonderful person!” But I know the truth.
Isn’t this what Paul meant when he cried out “what a wretched man I am!”?
For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:22-25
Yes! Thanks be to God, He has delivered me from my self through Jesus Christ my Lord! I know (at least in my head I know, but it is working its way down into my heart!) that I am not part of the “beaten army fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved”- the victory achieved by our Lord on the Cross. I know, along with Bonhoeffer, to whom I belong.
Yes, I know the truth about what is in my heart, but so does God. He knows I am a terminal mess in my flesh, but that my path is doggedly along the Narrow Way. I may be crawling through the mud most of the time, but He knows I am moving towards Him. My heart is wanting Him. He knows that whoever I am, I am His.
Photo, Inside Looking Out, by José Eugenio Gómez Rodríguez https://flic.kr/p/pz1jrM