“I hurried to the gate, made my way on to the plane, stowed my luggage, and sat down next to Mother Teresa! I smiled and made eye contact. She politely said, ‘So, who are you? And what do you do in this world that matters?’”
The keynote speaker who told this amazing story continued. “I wanted to answer that I’m somebody who does things that really matter, and I do those things well. But I was not convinced my goals, successes, and education were at the depth of Mother Teresa’s questions.”
On the surface, these questions are easy to me. I am a pastor who has three degrees in higher theological education. I used to teach on the seminary level and now I pastor a great church. I am the husband to a talented mental health professional who is the smartest person I know, and I am a father to the best baby in the world. But I am more than that.
I am someone who fears failing. I hate letting other people down, and I loathe the parts of myself that are lazy. I wish I had more time to myself as well as more time with my family. I care too much about insignificant sporting events and dwell too long on what other people think of me.
When I’m my best self, I am someone who helps others navigate the liminal space between the mundane and the sacred. When I am my worst self, I embroider the truth just enough to please the room.
I get stuck between the surface and the deeper, more intimate answers to Mother Teresa’s questions. And I bet you do too.
We are all people who need a place to stand; a reason to feel whole; a hope that surpasses understanding. Instead of taking time to reflect on the shadow sides of our soul, though, we answer Mother Teresa’s first question by deferring to her second one: “I am what I do.”
What we do with our time, money, and energy to help move the world forward matters. Since our days make up our years, what we do day-to-day to effect change, create beauty, and empower hope is worth thinking about. We should be people who reflect deeply on this second question (What do you do?), but not to the point that it answers Mother Teresa’s first question (Who am I?).
Richard Rohr once said that 90% of the world lives 90% of their lives on a conveyor belt. In other words, we define our lives by what we do, and it becomes so repetitious that we stop reflecting in a meaningful way on who we are outside of those roles.
When we answer “Who am I?” with “Here’s what I do,” we are saying our careers and hobbies define us. We become people who “do” some things.
It is hard to strip away our accomplishments and see ourselves for who we really are, but it is worth doing. Do we not want to know ourselves the way God knows us? Is that not why Mother Teresa asks her questions the way she does?
“Who are you?” is the first question, and “What do you do in this world that matters?” is the second. There is power behind both of these questions, and we must create meaningful space to reflect on each.