Were you born before 1960? If you were, then you probably know where I am going with this title and can skip to the next paragraph. However, if you were born after that, you might need this explanation. When I (and many others my age) were misbehaving adolescents, exasperated adults would often say, “Who do you think you are?” If the adult was extremely perplexed the word “anyway” would be added, as in “Who do you think you are ANYWAY?” This past weekend, the homilist at my parish reminded me of this old parental cliche and it has been rolling around in my head ever since.
That line was always meant to instill humility, though that was seldom the immediate result. For example, when I would return home after curfew my mom or dad would say “Who do you think you are anyway?” Today I realize what they meant was, “Do you think you have outgrown your concern for us? Did you ever give a thought to us? Did you ever think about how frightened we were that something terrible might happen to you? Do you think you are above the need for our guidance?” In my youth, I just became angry, because I interpreted my parents’ question as a desire for control and dominance, and I was too young and immature have a real sense of humility and empathy.
In my youth my response to “Who do you think you are anyway?” was usually silence and anger. First of all, because I didn’t dare to “sass back.” Secondly, because I believed their motivation was to prevent me from enjoying life. Their actual desire was to instill a concern for others, but that didn’t become clear until years later. Today I realize, if I had only been able to be calm, honest, and humble, I would have said, “I’m sorry! I was selfish. I didn’t mean to hurt or worry you. I’ll do better next time.”
I realize that the way I acted as a young person, was due to my own self-centeredness. Like the Grinch in the Dr. Seuss tale, my teenage heart was “two sizes too small.” As I moved through life, became a parent, and now a grandparent, my heart has been growing and I have a better understanding of the importance of humility and empathy. Still, life can present some challenges which cause my heart to shrink like wool in hot water!
In the political atmosphere of recent years, I’ve had this shrinking experience many times. The lack of cooperation among the various levels of my government, and example of my legislators, have sent me back into the smallness and immaturity of my youth. I find myself often devolving into fear, anger, and resentment. It is not until I ask myself, “Who do you think you are anyway?” that I can honestly say, “I am an American woman. I am disappointed with the adolescent in-fighting of my legislators. I am afraid for the future.”
I know the ideal of a multi-party system is, at its finest, to give voice to differing opinions and promote discussion and debate in order to work toward a compromise by which the majority of the nation’s people have their needs met. In recent years, the political pendulum is swinging wildly toward terrible extremes. Suddenly, I hear my concerned parental voice asking my government officials, “Who do you think you are anyway? When my heart tells me it might be more helpful to say, “Have you outgrown your concern for all of us? Do you ever give a thought to others? Do you ever consider how frightened we are? Do you think you are above the need for our guidance?”
It is precisely at these times that I realize I need to become more grounded (the true meaning of humility). It does not help my heart to grow when I focus on the greed, power struggles, and self-aggrandizement of the politicians. It disturbs my soul when I consider the wild claims of their supporters and their detractors. Fear does not help me to reach out in love to my brothers and sisters in need. Anger prevents me from being a good listener. Resentment closes my heart to empathy.
In order deal with these moments of fear, anger, and resentment more effectively, I find it helpful to read (and re-read) Max Ehrmann’s prose poem “Desiderata.” It reminds me who I am and who I want to be. I believe that if more people focused on these “desired things,” we might be able to find common ground. I am reprinting it here in the hope that Mr. Ehrmann’s words may uplift you as they have me, no matter what the political climate.
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, 1927