“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving, forever?”
In the classic film, The Third Man, Harry Lime, a racketeer in post-War Vienna, quizzes his old friend, Holly Martins, about the value of an individual life. They are standing in the carriage of a Ferris wheel, looking down on the city scape. From Lime’s perspective, the distance provides a detachment that makes morality obsolete. “Have you ever seen one of your victims?” Martins asks him. His own experience has carried him through a children’s ward in a hospital where the victims of Lime’s scams are on view. He has also fallen in love with Lime’s girlfriend who has been callously betrayed to the Russians. It is a deep conflict regarding the nature of human life.
Who I am cannot be separated from what I am. If I am nothing more than a tiny “dot” in the distance, who I am is of little or no significance. It is also true, however, that the meaning of who I am asks questions of “what I am.” What is it about any of us that belongs to the category of “who I am.”
The same question is presented in graphic form in CS Lewis’ novel, The Great Divorce. There, a bus-load of people make a journey from the shadows of hell (the “grey town”) to the edge of heaven. They are allowed to stay, but every case involves some matter of change, or “loss.” Most of the changes involve strangely cherished habits or matters of identity. An Anglican bishop finds that his “theological” work will be of no use and balks. A mother whose identity seems bound to a child actually demands to have her son (now in heaven) returned to her so she can take him back with her. The injury (murder) of another person has established a grievance. However, the grievance needs to be given up. It has no place within heaven itself. Some things seem rather trivial – a woman’s grumbling, another woman’s sense of embarrassment. But every case poses the question of the truth of a person’s identity. What is it about us that continues into eternity?
A man enjoys a great academic career. Will it matter or be remembered? A woman struggles with a mental handicap. Will it follow her beyond the grave? What can we identify as the truth of our being?
The traditional word for this identity is the soul.
Parsing through the patristic definitions of the soul, its relationship to the body, the functioning of the nous and such things, we easily lose sight of the simple fact of the soul’s existence and its reality as the truth of our being. The soul is an answer to the “what” of my being, and we rightly ask, “What of me belongs to that answer?”
I find an intriguing suggestion in Lewis’ Great Divorce. He offers a character who is enthralled to a besetting sin. In the story, the sin is portrayed as a small lizard that sits on the man’s shoulder. To every suggestion offered by an angel to destroy the lizard, the lizard protests and whispers fearful pleas into the man’s ear. Anyone who has ever known the power of an addiction can relate to the pitiful scene Lewis describes. In the end, in exasperation, the man cries out that the angel can do what it wants. The lizard is seized and killed. And this is where the genius of Lewis comes in. The lizard collapses in a heap of ashes on the ground. However, within moments, something comes forth from the ground. What was once a hideous lizard is now a mighty steed. The newly liberated man mounts on its back and gallops into the greater, deeper realms of heaven. It is the only image of a completed transformation in Lewis’ collection of vignettes. It contains something important in the question of our identity.
Lewis does not treat the sin, or at least some aspect of the sin, as utterly external and extraneous to the soul of this man. He could have let the story end with the destruction of the lizard. I suspect that most of us would like our relationship with sins, particularly those that are most familiar and repeated, to end in such a manner. I frequently hear it said in confession, “I keep doing the same things.” I usually reply, “It’s what it means to have a personality.” Our “besetting sins” are very likely what they are because they belong to us in some particular way. But they are not whole or complete. They are distortions of the self, or, are rooted in distortions of the self.
Sin, like evil, is never a thing-in-itself. It is always a misuse, or disfigurement of something good. Everything created by God is good, only its misdirection and distortion makes it evil. Evil never creates anything. We generally do not and cannot see this about our own sin. The shame that it engenders blinds us to its deeper reality.
I think of the difference between person and personality. “Person” is a theological term that belongs to our completeness, “who we shall be in the fullness of all things.” “Personality” describes that set of tendencies, behaviors, quirks, habits and reactions that shadow us throughout our days. Personalities are largely a collection of neuroses, that set of things we often hope that others do not notice or remember. We long to be persons, only to find ourselves as personalities.
Of course, if everything we think of as personality were removed, many think (perhaps rightly) that what would remain would be unrecognizable – nothing short of a new identity. Lewis’ image is therefore very suggestive. He looks at a personality, complete with the struggle that marks its besetting sin. It has perhaps been dogged and shaped by that sin for years. Its resurrection (for that is how we must understand what takes place) represents not the destruction and loss of personality, but its glorified and radiant new existence. Weakness has become strength – perfected.
In the resurrected Christ the prints of the nails do not disappear: they are marks of His glory. The agony is gone, but He is forever united with those wounds. Christ is forever hailed in heaven as the “Lamb that was slain.”
This, I think, is one of the great difficulties of knowing the true self. St. Paul says that our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). The daily struggle that marks our lives – the battle with the dogged details of personality – is accomplishing something within us that remains hidden. St. Paul offers this: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17) That glory is revealed in the fullness of personhood, conformed to the image of Christ.
The “dots” that we see at a distance were created to become gods. Viewing them from a distance creates a delusional vision. By the same token, the weakness and shame that marks our sin, that burdens us with all the baggage of personality is also delusional to a degree. It bears within itself a struggle working an eternal weight of glory waiting to be revealed.
It is in such a light that we are frequently told in Scripture not to lose heart. Be patient – with others as well as with yourself.