“Who Do You Say . . .?”

Hello from my little working table,

I am finishing a sample paper, organizing the next two weeks as well as Winter Term, and still commenting and grading. Welcome to my life in a metaphorical nutshell. And yes, it seems nuttier than usual. As I noted with some, when posting a previous blog in another venue, trying to wrap my head around retirement is more complicated than I thought it would be. Additionally, I’ve been enheartened by the support of my college classmates. One of the things that has most puzzled me is what gives someone a sense of place. As a person who did not venture far from their Iowa town, except for two vacations in all the years of growing up, once I began to travel, it seems it has never stopped. There is always a double-edged consequence of most anything, and undoubtedly, all of my travel has changed my perception of the world and of people, but the most significant consequence is my understanding (or maybe my confusion) about myself. Of course, my first significant travel or trip was to MCRD in San Diego, California to Marine Corps Boot Camp. For anyone who is a Marine, be it Parris Island or San Diego, that first night as a recruit is life-altering. Returning to NW Iowa was a shock to me, even though it was home, I was not the same person. Then as a sophomore in college, a trip to Europe for an interim changed my life. I did not know it at the time, but that literal walk through a history book, from the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican, the Olympic track in München or wading through the snow in Garmisch, which would eventually lead to my own excursion on my own, I would never be the same person. Spending time with a German exchange student’s family in Bergisch Gladbach where I learned more German in two weeks than two years and eventually finding my way back to my group before returning to the States create a fire, a desire of wanderlust that has never been extinguished. I think it might be a bit less intense than the 20 year old ready to try anything, and that might surprise some of you, but I think I wish I was a much more culturally prepared person today than I was then.

There was a 20 year period where I did not really leave the country, but the desire was always present. Now for the last decade, the quest to learn, to understand, to experience has been on a sort of auto-pilot regularity that is even a bit shocking to me. As I write this from another country, plans are being made to visit yet a couple more. I have noted this before, but I believe the best money one can spend after education is through travel, which I refer to as a cultural education. I remember the first time I asked students to define culture. I think I was a graduate student teaching composition for the first time. Dr. Diana George, one of the most amazing composition scholars I have ever met taught me so much about teaching first year writing. Between the sort of triumvirate of amazing women scholar of Elizabeth Flynn, Marilyn Cooper, and Diana George, I had no idea at the time how blessed I was to be in their classes. To this day I give them credit for my ability to teach first year writing. I continue to evolve, but unlike many of my colleagues who see FYW as a sort of pedagogical hazing of being an English professor, I love teaching it. And it is because of the things I learned from the trio above and the rhetorical foundation I have in everything I do.

Understanding one’s self is essential if one is to be successful as a student, as a professional, or even as a basic human being. I am not sure I understood that until the last few years. I think that is perhaps one of the positive things that came out of COVID for me. The isolation and the requirement to work remotely forced me to think much more deeply about what I did, but as importantly why I did it. Perhaps it was the time where all the elements of my life really came into focus and I have finally both been able to understand and accept the person I am, the strengths and weaknesses I have. I remember once telling my mentor the most important thing I had learned at one point was to be comfortable with my weaknesses. I wish that were a consistent thing, but we are such fragile people. Fragility is the great humbling reality of each of us. Fragility comes in many shapes and appears for a multitude of reasons, but I have been pondering what emotions fragility evoke. Fear is perhaps the most significant one, at least for me. It makes me wonder when is the time in our lives that we would hope to be most secure? Is there a time? Is fragility affected by our solitude, in our singleness? It seems that might be the case.

I was telling someone just yesterday that I feel more and more like the elderly uncle that was born in the last years of the 19th century. I have written about him at times in this blog. He became a widower in 1960 or so, and he lived for another 30 years. He was the person that was always invited, our perpetual Sunday dinner guest, a curmudgeon if there ever was one, and yet a complexly brilliant and caring person. I think I will be that person who is invited because someone feels sorry for me. Not that I do not have things to offer, but rather it is that people do care enough to want to include me. Here is another element of that . . . I have been told more than once, I am difficult to buy things for, that I have everything. I guess there is some truth. It is not that I have everything, it is just I do not have a specific need for anything significant. I am blessed in that way. When it comes to my Uncle Clare, even though he stayed at home most of the time, I am not sure he left our hometown much in the last 10-15 years of his life, he was rather legendary because of his exterior brusk nature. He was not adverse to using whatever words came to mind, and his gruffness did much to hide is actually kind heart. Sometimes, I think I might have more of him in me than I want to admit.

I sometimes wonder who people say I am, and there are times I might even worry about it. And yet that worry is a different worry then earlier in my life. As a boy growing up, and I am sure this is a consequence of my own home, I desperately needed people to like me. I still fall into that trap occasionally, but not to the degree I once did. It reminds me of my telling someone that no one could make them happy, it was a task they must do on their own. It is much the same way. If I do not like myself, how could I expect others to like the real person. There does seem to be a connective theme through my last blogs: some serious self-reflection and trying to come to terms with the person I am. That forces the question of who do people say I am? But as importantly, who do I say or think I am? What I realized for many years, was pretty simple. Various parts of my life did not seem to be chronologically aligned. In some ways I certainly felt my natural age. In other places I feel stunted or like somehow I was behind. And then again, there were other places I felt like I had been forced to be something I was not yet meant to be (at least in terms feeling even more ancient than I perhaps am, even now). What I now realize most times is something more comfortable. I feel like I am pretty much all in the same place. I feel like somehow the stars have aligned and there is a reasonably connectedness to the various elements of my existence. Somehow it seems sad that it took me until my latter 60s to get there. And that is perhaps why I am pondering it all. Is it perhaps more the way it is supposed to be. Is it that where I am now is where I should be . . . ready to close a chapter, or perhaps much more like a section, and begin a new section and create new chapters? It is that all of this is a foundation for what is to come?

Who am I as a professional? That part seems easy for the most part. Who am I as a person within a larger community? I think I have that part figured out too. Perhaps I have been most consistent there. My Great-Aunt Helen noted in my thirties that even as a two year old I was happy and I wanted other people to be happy. I think the latter part of that statement is still profoundly accurate. I wish happiness for other people. I can specifically think of two or three people that what I wish for them is a sense of peace and happiness. Additionally, I have noted that the time when I was 2-3 years old where happy times for me. I felt safe and loved. I am not sure I have been able to consistently feel that for any prolonged period since. That does not mean I have been perpetually sad or melancholy, but melancholy is a word that has been used to describe me more often than not. And yet there is that individual me . . . I am self-critical to the point that I wonder if I can ever measure up. I have noted from time to time that I know I no longer have to live up to the impossible standards I felt most of my elementary and adolescent years. I know that I no longer have to prove my worth to a person in whom there was no possibility of being worthy enough, so one is forces to ask from where do those standards come at this point? They must come from me, and that is a frightening thing. As I have noted more than once, the words of my incredible professor, Dr. John W. Nielsen come harkening back, “Michael, your theology of grace works fine for everyone but yourself. That is a problem . . . and it is serious. I know that, and I even understand it theologically, so what prevents that incredible grace to roll over me like the river of justice as noted in Amos 5:24. What makes me worthy of grace? As I noted in a recent blog, the answer is nothing makes me worthy. There are times I have found myself relating to both Luther and Bonhoeffer, two people I admire beyond words. One I studied in college and seminary, and the latter I would eventually write a dissertation on. More time has gone by once again, and weeks have passed. Time to post.

The other night I watched the movie Agent of Grace, the movie about Bonhoeffer and as he walked up to the platform to be hanged, I cried. The movie poignantly used his words that looked at his ethics, his understanding of discipleship, and his view and hope for the church. He was revolutionary in so many ways. It is something I find myself needing to return to. While in Tegel Prison, before he was implicated in the plot, he found himself being a pastor to those imprisoned with him. In his poem, “Who am I?” he wrote.

Who Am I?
Who am I? They often tell me,
I come out of my cell
Calmly, cheerfully, resolutely,
Like a lord from his palace.
Who am I? They often tell me,
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me,
I carried the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one who is used to winning.
Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, melancholic, and ill, like a caged bird,
Struggling for breath, as if hands clasped my throat,
Hungry for colors, for flowers, for the songs of birds,
Thirsty for friendly words and human kindness,
Shaking with anger at fate and at the smallest sickness,
Trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Tired and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,
Drained and ready to say goodbye to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once? In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?
Or is something still in me like a battered army,
running in disorder from a victory already achieved?
Who am I? These lonely questions mock me.
Whoever I am, You know me, I am yours, O God.

This poem speaks to me on so many levels. What I know is whatever I am it is a gift from God and when I am less, it is me failing to use the gifts I have been given. There is so much to realize and learn from our experiences and our world. And yet in this season of Advent, this last week before Christmas arrives, I am asked once again to prepare. Prepare for what? I sometimes ask. What can I do differently to be a better steward of the gifts I have been given. I think the answer to the question of who is this: I am becoming . . . I am always in the process of becoming. And so I can only ask as the haunting carol does “O come O come Emmanuel.”

I wish you each a blessed Advent as we await the coming once again as a daily sort of renewal and with a promise of hopefulness.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

12 thoughts on ““Who Do You Say . . .?”

  1. Dr. Martin, your reflections on being comfortable with our own weakness and or fragility in this post is significant. I notice too that my I will feel completely comfortable with my flaws and fragility yet it is not as consistent as I wish it was. Sometimes I am critical of myself and my flaws, and while this is not something that is overwhelming, I believe that this criticality is the perpetrator of the acute stress that causes academic hiccups for myself. In essence I believe I notice my flaws, and then, I refuse to take action and address them. Believing I left my problems in the dust, I get comfortable. Yet, you can’t twist reality without it untwisting and snapping back on you. Ignoring the problem eventually comes back, and its bite stings.

    1. Hello Devin! I enjoyed reading your response to Dr. Martin’s blog post. I can relate with what you are saying, I too am very critical of myself and my own flaws. With assignments, I tend to doubt myself and stress too much about it. A bad habit of mine is noticing my flaws and not trying to take action to help them. This then spirals out of control until it becomes too much in one way or another. I plan on working on this.

  2. Dr. Martin,
    I can relate to your view on traveling. Much like yourself, I did not travel much until I was 19 years old. I traveled down to Fort Jackson South Carolina to conduct Basic Training. It only took those short three months to alter my perception of the world. I became much more interested in traveling and experiencing new things. My return back home after training gave me some mixed feelings. I loved seeing my friends and family, but I also felt like there were very few new experiences waiting for me. I fell into a routine doing the same stuff week after week and it made me feel glum. This feeling stuck around with me until I deployed. Being able to travel half way across the world and experience a new culture is a breath of fresh air. Each new area I get to see or experience I have gives me a sense of adventure. The more I’m here the more my sense of adventure seems to grow.

  3. I have written and deleted, rewritten, and cut out paragraph after paragraph in response to your thoughts, because so many ideas have populated the vast space between my ears. I hope to organize my reaction into some logical considerations here.

    In my early teens, I was gifted a copy of Khalil Gibran’s, The Prophet. His musings on sorrow come to mind as they relate to identity, fragility, and melancholy. I find within his teachings, a connection point to your ruminations. He ponders:

    “And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?

    The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

    Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

    And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

    When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

    This passage has a home in my heart, for it does not diminish or bypass the negative, and instead, embraces melancholy as a guidepost – as a layer of our humanity. While I do not know exactly who I am, in fact, it changes from moment to moment, I do know that sorrow and joy and what lies in between, are constant parts of me. They are the lessons I will return to, over and over in this lifetime. Fragility is a part of me, as much as it is a part of all who inhabit flesh. Maybe, that is all we are meant to know of ourselves, for now.

    You ask, “Is fragility affected by our solitude, in our singleness?”.

    Is it shameful to admit that at times I indulge in the feelings of melancholy, and the lure of solitude? That at times I wish to submerge myself into the depths of self sorrow and maybe even apathy, isolated and reflective? Perhaps it is a learned defense we acquire when we feel overlooked or undervalued and misunderstood. Maybe it is a product of my introversion, but existing as some type of hermit is my true bliss. I sometimes find the most thoughtful, kind people also wade in lonesome, dark waters, to be in romantic relationship with their sadness, despite their brilliance. Maybe in a world that feels drab and lazy, melancholy is a place that grants us permission to accept that things aren’t always what we hoped and imagined they could be, it is a place in which we can entertain the depths that offer a glimpse into the spectrum of our potential for great joy. Maybe melancholy is the reclusion that allows us to nurture the seeds of our inner worlds. So, yes, I believe that solitude informs our fragility. And I think our fragility, ironically, motivates us to bloom into something powerful.

    While my feelings of solitude throughout life have informed my sensitivity, perhaps even my emotional detriments of caring too much and being easily affected by those around me, I would venture to say they have also led me to strength. There is vigor in the becoming you speak of, especially when we are unafraid to explore it on our own terms. Solitude allows us to see ourselves so truly that we come face to face with the importance of nurturing our self evolution and our gifts. It can be a great awakening that results in motivated action.

    You speak of these gifts in your writing, suggesting that they are given to us by some universal power. How can we uncover them? I think the uncovering happens in our self reflection, our aloneness. The vulnerabilities I have discovered in my aloneness have inspired the music I write and the illustrations I create. They have informed the way in I write, the way I speak, and the values I live by. My fragility is the common thread, the opening and the weak point, where others see themselves in me and find safety in sharing authentically, their truest selves.

    Are we ever truly changing, or are we instead uncovering what is already within us, nurturing what was below the soils all along? Are we digging into the depths of sadness and loneliness and misdirection, or are these feelings showing us where to shed light so that we can grow stronger and make space for joy? As I shared in a previous response to you, I find courage in our fragility. Vulnerability seems to be a recurring theme in my life. I am learning to embrace it and exercise it as a strength on which my success hinges, and it appears the same applies to you, Dr. Martin. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It has served as a potent remind for me today.

  4. As I read through this latest blog, I found myself reflecting on my personal and professional evolution over the past few years. I must admit, I did not fully realize how extensive the change was until this introspection. In order to fully explain and to have others fully comprehend and appreciate this transformation, I must first remark on the state in which I started blossoming into the person I am today.

    When I first enrolled at Bloomsburg University, I was a much different person. Shy, recluse, doubtful, unresolved, and hesitant are all adjectives that could, and often were, used to describe my mental and emotional state. I had no direction and no firm path in life outside of doing whatever was required to support myself and my children to the best of my ability. I constantly looked upon myself as a failure even though I was always hardworking and dependable. The problem that encircled my life was that I had no confidence in myself, which, in turn, created an atmosphere where others were hard pressed to place their confidence in me. This is a fact I can now only clearly see due to no longer being this same person.

    I can pinpoint the pivotal moment that began this transformation as being the first time I spoke with Dr. Sharlene Gilman during her office hours during my first semester in college. For years I had always believed I was not literally intelligent. My writing was suitable enough to present my ideas, but I never truly believed I skilled in “putting pen to paper”. It was her kind words reassuring me that I did have an expressive and interesting tone to my writing that provided me with the first layer of confidence that I built my current college career upon. It was shocking to have a complete stranger place their faith and confidence in me when others who were more intimately aware of my abilities were hesitant to do the same. During this semester, I grew incredibly fond of and close to this professor and can remark that she has become one of my most entrusted friends.

    Since this influential moment, the confidence I place in my abilities has continued to grow. With each passing semester, I encounter new professors and peers that enshrine their beliefs in me. To this day, I still cannot fully comprehend how a complete stranger could have such an impact on my life, but I am thankful all the same.

  5. I feel like I am on the cusp of traveling and creating my own experiences. I have been stuck in this area of northeastern Pennsylvania for 21 years and I am caught between wanting to leave as soon as I can or staying around. Growing up in Benton I had blinders on, I thought Pennsylvania consisted of just the Benton park and fishing creek. After high school, I started driving to state parks, abandoned places, and the National forest which has expanded upon what I had known this state to be. If you would’ve asked me at the age of 17 where I was going to go to settle down, I would’ve said anywhere but here. Growing up with a mother and grandmother who are from another country, I would hear stories of a different culture and lifestyle. Although, I ask my family who are living in England now how things are going and they tend to complain. These days I don’t know, things may seem bad here but other places are just worse. I think I have to travel to other countries to actually make my mind up.
    I have always had the perspective that I am a big joke, and I use my flaws as a shield in a way. Despite this, I did have anger issues growing up. I have learned to relax because I realized that this anger was a reaction to how fragile I actually was on the inside. Although people could make fun of me for how I looked and acted, as soon as I felt insignificant or foolish I would break. Realizing this was something I was insecure about, I realized that just being silly all the time would not help me. Over COVID I learned how to wise up and to stop compromising my character for laughs. Understanding this issue helped me as a student, it has made me more focused and efficient. It feels like I know what must be done and I just do it, I started taking my life seriously. I stopped doing everything for fun and started working towards actually progress for my life. It is okay to find the funny things in life but its more important to know when to stop and do what you need to. Nearly failing my first year helped me realize that, it made me look in the mirror and see that my behavior was the problem.

  6. This blog post has really made me look into myself and realize that I too have become content with my own imperfections. Not to say that I do not work to make me flawless in some ways, but to realize that everyone has imperfections and mine do not make me any worse than the next person. I also relate to you when you write about worrying about what people have to say about you. Those days have pasted for me. I have grown and learned that if someone has negative thoughts about me or how I handle my business, not only am I not their concern, they are not mine either. I believe that a important trait to gain while growing up is the ability to not let other people determine what you do with your life. I am at a point in my life where if I want to accomplish something, I am going to do it whether the people around me don’t like the idea or doubt me. I have also always wanted to travel the world, but I never thought about it in the way you have proposed it. Using travel as a cultural education is a very intriguing when to look at it and I am fascinated by it. Most people in todays world travel the world to take pictures and brag about their fortunes to everyone possible. The way you have just described traveling adds a much more humane aspect to it, to take the opportunity to learn about the other people all across the world instead of just the people we see on an everyday basis.

  7. Through reading this blog post I indeed find myself relating somewhat. I believe in striving to put yourself in and push through uncomfort. Whether through the gym, sports, hobbies, ect… if you stay within a comfortable “space”, you get nowhere. Pushing yourself to try new things, even little things no matter what it is, I believe help you grow as a person. Your part of travel enticed me greatly as I have never been big on leaving home. While yes I’ve been on vacation many times, and have visited places as far as Canada, home for me is within friends and family. Coming to college was the first time I truly had no one. The first few weeks living on my own and knowing nobody were not the easiest. But as I said I also love pushing myself through uncomfort. Pushing myself to meet new people, do new activities, ect.. have allowed me to adapt greatly and I am now able to call college a new “home”. From these experiences I believe I’ve truly grown as person, taking more responsibility on and becoming more of this we call maturity.

  8. If I were to have written this you would’ve said, “there is a lot to unpack here,” and reading this reminded me of my own “journaling” from a while ago, and things that haunt me still. You could’ve just as easily created a post with far more concision; “Who am I? What do I want?” Two questions I ask myself every day.

    As I approach a new chapter in my life I ask those ever ponderous questions every night, every morning, and every moment I am in a retrospective state. It seems that I always know what I want, I know who I am, and I just let all the pressure and my erroneous desires go. I repeat a vicious cycle of doubt and acceptance every few months and learn more and more about all that I am.

    I see that I discover myself through others, I see that I express myself in one very obvious and particular way, yet somehow I manage to forget at the exact moment I shouldn’t; I make a mistake.

    I’m beginning to feel weary as if I’m an old man, tired of disappointment, irritated by my optimism, distressed by my desperation, as if I have lived hundred lifetimes in two measly and quick years and cannot break away from my hellishly naïve mind.

    If my life is this way now, living in my cramped room in my childhood home, meeting one new person every four months; I can’t imagine the horror and heartbreak that lies in wait in my 20s. I have to imagine I will be a withering, doddering old fool by the time I am in my 30s. Perhaps I should take up bingo and mouth-open sleeping now in preparation for my golden years.

  9. Dear Dr. Martin,

    When reading “Who Do You Say…?”, I had been able to garner interests with the shared desire of travel and the lack of ability to do so. I had not thought about the countless learning opportunities of cultures rather than visiting monuments and times of history.
    The idea that you are only invited to events because they care for you and not your performance is a great issue to have. You either are cared for in someone’s life or you know that you have a position to be there. Either way, you provide something and that is all people can ask for.
    You had seemed to be constantly questioning yourself while holding a double-edged sword. Rather than accepting realities it seems like you questioned too much. That questioning is not always bad.
    The questioning had taught you who you are now and you can start settling down. You learning that it is God’s gifts will now provide you more motivation to succeed. That can be harder knowing you don’t want to let the Lord down, but thrilling knowing you don’t have to question if there is a purpose anymore. People have these same thoughts everywhere in the world and the thought of getting other cultures perspectives on purpose is intriguing.

  10. Dr. Martin,

    What an intriguing entry! My interest in reading budded in the beginning paragraphs and then as soon as you began reflecting on your time abroad and your visits outside of the United States, my interest in its entirety sprouted! As I refer to when we connected previously with our times abroad and the life-changing experience that it is, I wanted to emphasize how powerful this connection is! Living life in another country is like purchasing a new sense of self. One finds their identity not only growing accustomed, but growing beautifully rooted in the country’s culture and ways of life. During my summer in Almería, Spain, I found this to be true! I found my new sense of self, sense of personality in Spain’s culture as well as their beautiful language of Castellano. Wholeheartedly, I adored my time abroad and how my mind was changed for the rest of my life! Similar to what you quoted in your blog, that traveling is “cultural education”. My heart, mind and soul was educated. From what you have shared, this appears to be what you experienced as well as you claimed traveling is one of your favorite parts of this wonderful life. Having the opportunity to be fully submerged in one’s culture, eating the food they make at home, swimming in the nearby beach they relax at, eating tapas and resting with the family during siesta, all transforms one’s own ways of life and encourages one to reflect on why this culture is the way that it is. There is a moment when one is abroad where the culture reflects back in the mirror and one finds their new identity, their new sense of belonging in that country and its customs. I enjoyed reflecting on these times abroad and I appreciated how candidly you wrote on its beauty and impact. Thanks for writing and reading my response, Dr. Martin!

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