As a classic intuitive person, I spend my life discovering patterns. As a social psychologist, professor, and priest, I tend to look at groups of people. Over the years I have discovered a simple and powerful pattern followed by people who (1) enjoy life the most, (2) regularly express vitality and creativity, and (3) constantly create good news for and with others.
I describe this pattern as (1) Know yourself, (2) Be yourself, (3) Give yourself away.
Although these three injunctions may not have the authority of Surah, Sutra, or sermon, they do seem present and applicable with people from many backgrounds, cultures, and spiritual traditions. As I’ve worked with people and organizations in transition during these past few years, I have found a universal connection to each of these, as individuals and groups struggle with the challenges of living life in times of turmoil and change.
Know Yourself came to me 25 years ago in a note I received from a retired bishop when my own ordination was approaching. He wrote, “Many will say ‘be Christ-like for the sake of others.’ I say to you, ‘be yourself for Christ’s sake.’” His turn of phrase hit the mark. How often had I — and as I have seen, countless others — tried to give away an unknown self. Some call this dilemma co-dependency; others, a lack of insight. I will simply say that those who have taken the time to really know who they are have a better time of it, relationally, vocationally, and spiritually.
Although a lifelong process, knowing one’s self along the way requires only curiosity and determination. It is not the persons who are set somehow by a framework or universal pattern outside of their selves that live the most authentic lives. Each of us finds our self in many relationships — with the universe, God, nature, one another, even with the various selves we are through the course of a day. It is the variability of these relationships that provides the many vectors we can use to identify whom we are. It is not one particular reference point that is definitive. Deepening one’s awareness of the many versions of self and integrating those facets into a cohesive sense of self leads us to the fullness and richness of what St. Irenaeus intended when he said, “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” What better evidence of our knowing our self than being a self that is fully alive!
When taking an individual or group through this process, I ask lots of questions. I ask about memberships in organizations, favorite songs, newspaper clippings, key friendships, Myers-Briggs scores, nicknames, family connections, pictures in a wallet or purse, habits of spending — any of the many artifacts of self that are abundant and available in one’s life. I even recommend other tools, such as the “360° Reach” available at reachcc.com. These tools allow one to learn from others the way in which one is perceived. Other possibilities for this kind of self-knowledge include candid conversations, job reviews, or a talk with a child who knows us; all of these can help us get a bead on whom we are. The key is to become both biographer and ethnographer of self. The research domain is our relational space. Our relationships are context and culture both. In them, we deepen our knowledge of who we are and how we are.
Once you have gathered this rich array of data, turn it into a narrative. Gathering the disparate pieces is key. You may write it, paint it, collage it, or turn it into a play. The point is to organize it in such a way that you bring focus to what you have collected. This is your first draft. Usually, when I read someone’s first draft I find a chronicle of activities and accomplishments. This is good for the first draft, but for the next draft, the narrative should shift from the definition of your self as a doer to a rich description of who you are. As one of my clients so aptly described it, “My story shifted from a chronicle of my doing-ness to an understanding of my being-ness.” As you make this shift, and for the sake of simplicity, I recommend that you ask yourself these three questions:
1) Who am I to me?
2) Who am I to you?
3) Who am I to us?
Ask the questions again and again until your answers describe your being-ness, not your doing-ness. In this way, you build a strong platform for moving to the next stage.
Be Yourself flows from knowing yourself. It comes through identifying those regular habits and behaviors that keep you centered in your self, in your being. An example from my own life applies here. Recently, after a long illness, my father died. I live a somewhat public life, with clients, parishioners, students, family, and friends, who have every reason to trust that they can call upon me and receive a timely response. Yet I’m also an introvert and in the days that followed the funeral, a priest friend pointedly reminded me of the Jewish practice of sitting shiva, where family members remember the departed, say prayers, and keep a kind of somber quiet. He told me of a similar Roman Catholic custom of proscribed periods of mourning. I took the hint and put an auto-responder message on my email, left my phone in a drawer, and spent two days alone, reflecting on my father’s life and death and how this would shape the next 47phase of my life. I came back to my work, refreshed and with a deeper sense of how life would be different moving forward. This was not a process of doing something. It was simply a time of being with what was unfolding in my life.
For you, it may be a good run every day, spending time in the arms of your lover, woodworking, knitting, reading to a child, using a fixed set of prayers daily, or never wearing plaid. The “be yourself” part of this process asks you to identify those behaviors that keep you faithful to whom you are. I often think of this as practicing good energy management.
In his October 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “More Energy or Less? Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time,” Tony Schwartz takes a similar approach. Schwartz notes four areas — the physical, the emotional, the mental, and the spiritual — as focal areas for energy management. The key is to follow the patterns and rhythms of energy in your life and the life you share with others and, when possible, map your life to those things that bring you energy. In following Schwartz’ suggestion about developing rituals that sustain these peaks, I have found that going into a quiet room to concentrate, away from phones or email; spending some time daily praising others; or treating the time spent heading home as transition time (no calls, no music, just reflection and deep breathing) are all good ways to keep the energy present and sustained. As a way to help them identify personal rituals, I ask people going through this process to identify practices, rhythms and patterns of energy in their lives — things that bring them to a place of being, not simply doing.
As Schwartz’ research shows, and my experience confirms, when we practice good energy management, we are more consistently and authentically living in our being-ness and not overwhelmed by our doing-ness. We live healthier, happier, and more effective lives.
Give Yourself Away
As we move from defining the self as what we do and move more and more into being, we become energized and renewed for relationships. In living our rituals and staying with being-ness and not doing-ness, we find ourselves drawn into the kind of self-forgetfulness described by artists and mystics alike. This makes us available to others in new ways.
Ken Gergen, in his wonderful book, Relational Being, describes these ways of giving oneself away as generative processes, where “new and enriching potentials are opened through the flow of interchange.” These processes are mutual, self-giving, and sustaining of my self, the other, nature, and society. Giving myself away happens within a relational context, where there are “spaces and places” to be myself in confluence with other selves and where the outcome is an enhanced way of being for all involved.
There are many ways to understand what giving one’s self away might look like. My own favorite of late was triggered by a Jim Rohn quote: “One of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone is the gift of attention,” and it involved my nephew and a Thomas the Tank Engine playhouse. While visiting family in Atlanta, yet being hassled by work and on deadline, I was less than the Uncle Steve my nephew imagined. A “stop, breathe, and smile” moment shifted me from frustration over meeting my deadline to my immersion in the world of Thomas. Half an hour later, I was energized by a richer understanding of Thomas, by time with my nephew, and by getting a new perspective on what I was writing. Other examples from a recent workshop include a group of women who ran together as a way to encourage all of their progress in running the Chicago marathon; as well as a bread baker who gathered other widowed men from his congregation to learn that there is more to a kitchen than a microwave. All of these experiences express the description of the Kingdom of God, offered by a radio preacher in Tulsa: “The Kingdom of God is like a great potluck, where there is room on the table for what I cooked, and where I go home with the pan or bowl licked clean.”
In engaging the whole “Know yourself, Be yourself, Give yourself away,” process, there is a great deal to be gained by taking the time to do it well. When you use this process, look for places where energized self-forgetfulness creates new and expressive potentials. Pay attention throughout the process, and you will live a richer, deeper, and fuller version of the life that is yours alone to live — a life where you are more energized and more fully alive.