I came across an intriguing quote from Kierkegaard: “The greatest danger, that of losing one’s own self, can pass off as quietly as if it were nothing. Every other loss — that of an arm, a leg, a spouse, five dollars, etc. — is sure to be noticed.” (from A Sickness Unto Death)
I think he is right. Most losses are very clear and often painful. Some are serious, some trivial. I do become quite upset when I realize that I have been short changed five dollars at the grocery story.
Paradox: the loss of trivial things may trouble us greatly. Yet we may not even notice our identity, our person, slipping away.
One of the saddest stories I have heard is that of the manager retiring after a long and successful career. At his retirement party he looked very depressed. A friend asked what was troubling him. He said “I have spent my entire life climbing the ladder of success. It was hard. It required sacrifice. But I made it to the top. Only now do I realize that all this time I have been climbing the wrong ladder.”
As Kierkegaard suggests, the loss of self “can pass off as quietly as if it were nothing.” We may not even notice that it is happening.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Creating True Peace writes: “When we consume we are consumed. We make ourselves into objects of other people’s consumption.” It is so easy to loose ourselves in mindless consumption. Hanh insists that we need to get our lives back. The path to well being, he writes, is paradoxically not marked by accumulation, but by relinquishment.
Jesus addressed this with a paradox: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:35-36)
Paradoxically, Jesus taught, when we try to save ourselves, to get and to hold onto what we think we need, we can easily get lost in the process. But when we let go of the need to be in control, when we loose ourselves in surrender to God, we find ourselves. Our lives are not diminished – they are enlarged.
Why? Because that is what God wants for us. God’s delight is that we become more beautifully and completely ourselves: fully alive, fully loving, fully human.
But we have to be willing to embrace paradox, to let go of the need to be in control, and to trust the one who invites us to follow him.