Being a writer, I pay attention to words a lot and I think how we say things is important. One area I’ve especially been sensitive to is that of labeling ourselves and talking about who we are. A few years ago my Dad pointed out that we are human beings, not human doings. This has always seemed an important distinction to me and is a lesson that has been repeated by many wise people: who we are is more important than what we do.
A very strange phenomenon has taken over our present age: we are defined by what we do or uncontrollable conditions, rather than who we are. As far as I can tell, this problem is perpetuated by the inadequacies of the English language.
This was brought to my attention when we talked about person first language in one of my social work classes. We tend to label people, such as, he is handicapped, she is blind, etc. My teacher pointed out that it is much more respectful to say something like, a person with a disability. You might roll your eyes and chalk this up to political correctness, but stay with me for a little longer. Really think about what I’m saying. We say someone is handicapped, we are saying that handicap is what defines that person. We are people, first, with equal natural dignity based solely on that fact. So in this case, the problem is that people are defined by an uncontrollable condition. I’d like to connect this with how we think of people with homosexual tendencies (see what I did there?)
We are in the habit of saying he/she is gay. Speaking this way defines a person completely based on which gender he/she is sexually attracted to. As soon as we label people as “gay” we make all kinds of assumptions about them. It works the opposite way too – we label people with certain characteristics as “gay.” This seems like a major problem to me and undermines the human dignity inherent in all people. C’mon people, aren’t we hip youngsters supposed to defy labels?? (Secretly we can’t survive without them).
Another area that I think this problem comes into play is the discussion of men’s and women’s roles. When people advocate for equality between the sexes, they often discuss the fact that women should be able to do the same things as men. They don’t realize that the problem is deeper than this and the solution lies at the root of who we are. We need to ensure that the human dignity and freedom of all people is equally respected. As I have discussed before, true freedom is found in being who you are, not in the things you do. Although people don’t want to hear it, we really need to be discussing how to help men and women be true to their natures, not what each sex should or should not be doing.
I’m continually trying to recenter my focus on who I am, not what I do. For example, I’ll ask God who he wants me to become, not what he wants me to do. And in everything I do, I discern how it is helping me become the person God is calling me to be.
When God is asked who he is his answer is simply “I AM.” In tomorrow’s gospel reading from John, the crowd asks Jesus to perform a miracle; instead he tells them who he is: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”