My friend R- said, “Before long I won’t remember who you are. I won’t really remember who I am.”
For over forty years I’ve called R- to catch up and stay connected. Who he is has shaped the course of my life.
He was a gifted teacher, dedicated to nurturing not only his students’ minds but also our souls. I was drawn to—and I try to emulate—his kindness and down-to-earth graciousness. He possessed a contagious faith that expressed itself in laughter, humility, and a lively curiosity about life’s deep, abiding questions.
R-‘s singular gift was to pass on that curiosity. Instead of giving us answers, he taught us to be stretched by the questions. To be swept up by the wonder of our very existence.
An infinite mystery lies at the heart of all things. Not only are there things that we do not yet know. There is the unknowable. Our finite minds cannot fully grasp it. We embrace that mystery by opening ourselves to it.
About a year ago R- told me that his doctor had diagnosed him with middle stage Alzheimer’s. In a matter of months he would probably descend into that cruel disease’s late stage. When I called a few weeks later, R- shared this story with me again as if for the first time.
Later he told me, “Before long I won’t remember who you are. I won’t really remember who I am.” His tone conveyed neither self-pity nor bitterness. Neither resignation nor hopelessness. He spoke those words tenderly, as if from a place of peace he was softening the blow for me.
That was so R-. He cared about the impact that this news would have on me. But he was doing something more. Something also very much in keeping with R-. He recognized a teachable moment.
He saw that his disease—a disease bent on the most ruthless kind of identity theft—gave a new poignance to, and opened a new perspective on, one of life’s enduring questions:
Who do I say that I am?
You see, R’s thinking had been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.
To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.
Since R- and I are both Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions.
What R- was inviting me to consider is this. Even as R- loses sight of who he is, I will remember. Sure, I’ve never known him exhaustively. Much of who he is remains a mystery to me. But my love for him as him helps him to continue to be him.
I’m reminded of a question that Jesus once asked his friends. “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) As I hear it, Jesus was not giving his followers an orthodoxy litmus test.
He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”
When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit. We all forget. At one time or another. We forget that we are the Beloved.
And so we we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us until somehow, by grace, we come back to ourselves at last.