Asking ‘Who Am I?’

I would like to thank the Deans, teachers, administrators, and staff at St. Michael’s Prep for the invitation to speak to the graduating class.  Graduates, families, friends, and loved ones: welcome, and congratulations.  It is an honor to celebrate with you today. 

There’s a scene in the movie, The Amazing Spider-Man, where Peter Parker is sitting in class.  His Literature teacher, Miss Ritter, says to the class: “I had a professor once who liked to tell his students that there were only ten different plots in all of fiction.  Well, I’m here to tell you he was wrong.  There is only one: ‘Who am I?’”

Dear graduates: Who are you?  Look around you here, and you can begin to formulate an answer to that question.  As of today, you are now a graduate of St Michael’s Abbey Preparatory School.  Look to your loved ones who are joining you here today, and you and you will readily see: you are someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend.  Perhaps you are already an uncle, or a godfather.  As you move on to the next phase of your life, you will continue to add layers to your identity.  Perhaps you will be a biology major, perhaps a member of the band, or a political activist, or the president of a student club, or a baseball player.

All of these things are good.  They are important.  But at the end of the day, they are not enough.  Because they don’t really answer this question—the question that drives all of the great stories: Who am I?  How do I find the answer to this question?  How do I—as people say today—find myself?

St. John Paul II often would tell us that man a finds himself only through a sincere gift of himself.  What did he mean by this?  We find ourselves only through self-giving, through sacrifice, through serving God and others.  You have been fortunate these past four years: you have learned this spirit of service here at St. Michael’s.  The Norbertines have taught you well.  As you say goodbye to this school, do not forget this lesson.  Do not lose this spirit of self-giving, by getting caught up in selfishness, in consumerism, in the desire to get, to take, to acquire, to possess more and more, all the while giving less and less.  For this is a dead-end path.  You will find yourself only by giving of yourself.  You will gain your life only by losing it.

Who am I?  Another way to answer this question is to ask: What am I supposed to be doing?  What is the real purpose of my life?  For we discover who we are, we find our identity, by discovering and living our mission, our vocation.  The question we should constantly be asking is this: Lord, what do you want me to do?  This is a daring and a dangerous question for us to ask.  If we sincerely ask this question—What do you want me to do, Lord?—then we should prepare to strap in and hang on for the ride.  Because the Christian life is a great adventure, and God will ask great things of us.

In the Lord of the Rings, Samwise is encouraged by the thought that his life is part of a great story.  He says to Frodo, “I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales.  We’re in one, or course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards.”  Even as they face death on Mt. Doom, Sam exclaims to his friend: “What a tale we have been in, Mr. Frodo, haven’t we?  I wish I could hear it told.  Do you think they’ll say: Now comes the story of Nine-fingered Frodo and the ring of Doom …  And I wonder how it will go on after our part?”

Just like the characters in this story, each one of you has been given a specific vocation from God, a very specific mission.  If you choose to ignore this, if you do not accomplish this task, then no one else in the world will do it.  If you turn away from God, if you do not listen to his voice, then the world will be the worse off for it.  And you will never find an answer to the question: Who am I?

Now, when I say the word “vocation,” you might think of the vocation to the priesthood, or to the religious life. These are of course beautiful and important vocations, as the priests of St. Michael’s Abbey have demonstrated to you. Some of you will be called to this vocation, and that is a great gift from God.  I pray that you have the daring and the generosity to answer that call.  But most of you will be called to other vocations: to the vocation of marriage, to life as a layman in the middle of the world.  These vocations are also very important.  These are also paths where you can find God, where you can find happiness and fulfillment, where you can discover who you are.

The layman learns to find God in and through his daily work in the middle of the world, in the ordinary everyday activities of professional work and family life.  He loves his wife; he sacrifices himself for his children.  He gives them the example of a good father, which will be their first experience of God’s love.  This is my own vocation, and I can tell you that it is a great and a difficult calling.

Who am I?  I am a son, I am a brother, I am a husband, I am a father, I’m a citizen of the United States, I’m a graduate of this or that high school, this or that college, I’m a member of this profession, or that association.  All of these form part of my identity.  But most of these features are impermanent—they pass away—and none of them is the most important feature of who I am. The core feature of my identity, the core feature of your identity, is simply this: you are a child of God.  God is your Father; and you are his adopted son.  Everything else about you pales in comparison to this reality.

There are many people and many forces in our culture today that want us to forget this—to forget who we are.  They tell us half-truths; they tell us outright lies.  Advertisers want us to believe that we are nothing but a bundle of needs and appetites that can be satisfied by having more, by acquiring more, by consuming more.  Others tell us that we should identify with our weaknesses, our sins, or our disordered inclinations—that these should define who we are.  Others tell us that our value and our identity depends upon how much status we attain, how many people follow us on Facebook or Twitter: you are “somebody” if you’re famous, if people know who you are. These are all lies.  This is not our true identity.  It is all vanity, and it will vanish in the end.

You were educated by the good teachers of St. Michael’s, so I trust that you will not fall for these lies.  You have been given a great gift by attending this school, by learning from the wise counsel of these priests who can help you to answer these deepest questions.  You have now written the first part of the story of your life, and now you are ready to move onto the next chapter.

Maybe Peter Parker’s teacher was right: maybe there is after all only one kind of story.  Maybe the story of your life is the story of how you discover, and rediscover, who you really are.  The greatest storyteller the world has ever known told short stories called parables.  These stories give us the most profound answers to the most important questions: Who is God, and who am I?

Perhaps the greatest of these stories is the Parable of prodigal son.  You all are familiar with the story.  When the prodigal son went off into a far country he ended up miserable.  He was miserable because he had forgotten who he was.  He had forgotten who he was because he had forgotten his father.  He remembered who he really was when, in a moment of crisis, he “came to himself”: at that moment he recalled his father’s love, and he made the decision to return to his father’s house.  Despite the fact that he had made a total mess of his life, even in that dark pit where he was close to despair, he could still remember that he was the son of a great and merciful father.  Dear graduates, this story is also the story of your life: you are a beloved child of God, who is your great and merciful Father.

In the words of my late mentor, Professor Ralph McInerny, we are all characters in search of our author.  You see, you are not the only one writing your story.  I congratulate all of you graduates on finishing the first part of the story of your life.  As you continue with the next chapters, remember that if you let God be the author, your life will indeed become a great adventure.

As you continue this adventure, my parting advice to you is simple: never forget who you are.  Even if you wander off the path, if you stray, or if you lose your way; even if you venture far from your father’s house, and if you fall: remember who you are.  If you meet with success and good fortune, if you find fame and receive the world’s praise, if you achieve all your dreams and all your life goals—whatever happens to you, wherever you go and whatever you do in this life: always remember who you are.

Congratulations, class of 2015.  May God bless you and your loved ones.

Editor’s note: This was originally deliverd as a commencement address to St. Michael’s Preparatory School.  St. Michael’s is an all-boys high school in Silverado, California, run by the Norbertine fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey

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Aaron Kheriaty is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Program in Medical Ethics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine. He serves as chairman of the clinical ethics committee at UCI Medical Center. Dr. Kheriaty graduated from the University of Notre Dame in philosophy and pre-medical sciences, and earned his MD degree from Georgetown University. He is the author of several books and articles for professional and lay audiences, and he lectures regularly on topics related to psychiatry, social science, bioethics, and spirituality. Dr. Kheriaty lives in San Juan Capistrano, California, with his wife and five sons.

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