Though we may not admit to it while we are engaged in various actions of making choices – or even be conscious of it – the truth is that all of us are trying to achieve a sense of unity in our lives.
We desire to achieve integrity in the sense that our lives as a whole should make sense, and our actions should contribute and shape that wholeness and integrity. When our lives don’t seem to have any unity to them, we feel uneasy and we should try to achieve or restore some unity.
For example, if I seriously wanted to be a professional athlete, I should engage in many activities that will help me achieve that goal and avoid activities that might make that goal impossible or at least more difficult to reach. There are programs of preparation to many vocations, and I hope that those programs are helping people direct their actions toward the desired goal. I think immediately of marriage preparation courses and programs to prepare people to take religious vows and make a life commitment to God.
In his wonderful book, titled “Gabriel Marcel” (South Bend, Indiana: Regnery/ Gateway, 1963, pp. 128), author Seymour Cain offers a number of valuable insights into the French existentialist-personalist thinker’s philosophy. I found some comments about Marcel’s view of action especially interesting and even inspiring. Commenting on and paraphrasing Marcel’s view of action, Cain writes the following:
“I attain personal existence through action – not passively or automatically. The act and the person involve one another. Only the person can act. Action cannot be performed by the general ‘one’ or ‘they’ or by its functional particle, the individual isolated ego. It is of the essence of the person to act, confront, envisage, assume responsibility, decide, commit himself. ‘My action at engages me.’ There is an integral togetherness of me and my act, which is ‘incorporated in the totality of what I am.’ My whole life as integrated and consecrated, may be seen as a single act – a sacrament. The saint, the hero, and the artist demonstrate this through their lives and works.” (p. 78)
There is so much to think about in this quote that I plan to reflect on it the next time I engage in formal prayer. In the history of thought there are many attempts to articulate the meaning of human existence.
All the famous philosophers have tried to do that. What Cain presents as Marcel’s view, I think, is one of the most profound views of what it means to be human.
Revealed Through Actions
When we act, we reveal ourselves. Some actions can sum up our entire lives. I am thinking of a life commitment. What we commit our lives to – or rather to whom we commit our lives – says who we are. Our actions are like words we utter or self-descriptions that we present. Our actions probably reveal who we really are more than what we say and the words that we might use to describe ourselves. All actions do this, but some actions do it more than others. Once again, I am thinking of life commitments.
I agree completely with Cain’s description of a person as one who assumes responsibility, as one who decides and as one who commits. Is there any reality that so forms and shapes a person as much as a life commitment that the person makes? I don’t think that there is.
Actions and Identity
In life commitments we hold our lives in our hands and offer them as a gift to someone. We assume responsibility for what is important to us and we assume responsibility for who we are. Because there is such an intimate relation between how we act and who we are, there is sense in which we can not hide ourselves from others.
I am not suggesting that it is easy for others to know who we really are, but I do think others can tell from our actions when we are revealing who we really are and also when we are trying to conceal who we really are.
I knew a professor who told me that everyone was his friend. I thought this was great. As I watched him walk around campus greeting various people I was impressed. As I came to know him better, I realized he had no close friends but merely acquaintances. He would not reveal himself to anyone or allow anyone to come close.
An Integrated Life
The suggestion that we can look at our entire life as a sacrament is both provocative and inspiring. If we can get our act together, if we can integrate all the parts of our life and make an offering of them, a gift of them, then I think we will have reached the depth of what it means to be a human. We will be what or rather whom God calls us to be.