Your True “i”
by: Isaac Chang, S&C Coach, Co-Founder M3Initiative
Word count: 860
Estimated Reading time: 9 minutes
There is a saying:
“If not now, when?”
. . .
The crucial element is always missing:
“If not I, who?”
Hillel once said “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14
The dissection was presented to me by a dear friend and eloquently written by Yaakov Astor:
“The phrase distinguishes between two selves – “I” and “me”. It implies that somehow we can have a self called “I” and a self-called “me.”
“The “I” self is the deepest self. By contrast, the “me” is the persona we develop during life. Elements of the “me” originate from others, from society – from that which is outside “I.”
I have found this to be deeply compelling. There are layers that operate upon our “selves” that restrict us from becoming our true “selves”. We are told, after all, that you are shaped by your environment. This is “me”. Not “I”.
Your “me” develops overtime. It becomes a summation of “non-self” forces. As Astor puts it: “Your country” – the nationalistic, political ideology. “Your birthplace” – the more local, communal, ethnic undertows. “Your father’s house” – even the particular familial expectations and norms. Each of us has an authentic, unique self; an “I.” Hillel teaches us that if we do not reveal that “I” – the part of my self that is unique – then who are we? What value is there to “me,” the persona that operates in the world? It is just a shell, a conglomeration of societal elements originating in others.
The next clause in Hillel’s aphorism reads: “But if I am only for myself, who am I?”
I have been pondering lately on how frequent the expression “I don’t care what others think about me. This is just me,” becomes subdued and poorly sustainable.
The first layer is somewhat correct. You shouldn’t care. Because this is you. But then you must. In order to serve. You must first learn to start with the self, but then move out into the world of others. Astor says, “by doing so, we free them and ourselves from bondage and reveal a greater self. It is a self that is simultaneously a part of a greater whole. There is a unique “I” in the universe and it has only been entrusted to one human being: you. If that unique “I” does not somehow find expression, then the world will never know it. A precious unique “I” has failed to be experienced. That is a tragedy. However, once that “I” has discovered and learned to express its individuality, it needs to take the next step and bring it out into the world. Each of us has something unique to contribute and no one else can bring it into the world.”
After all, John Donne found that:
No man is an island entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
Though its intention lies behind mortality, is that not what a life for self and others should become? An allegory of love and deep connection.
If Not Now, When?
I’ll leave this here. Astor brilliantly dissects Hillel’s aphorism:
The third clause of Hillel’s aphorism reads: “If not now, when?” What does this somewhat enigmatic phrase have to do with the struggle of self?
The clause is describing an important step in bringing the process of self-actualisation to fruition. It’s saying: “Stop procrastinating! If not now, when? If you’re not going to develop your self now – if you’re not going to make that trip, take that course, meet that person, read that book – when will you? Get moving on it NOW!”
Sometimes the very thing that can give us the most satisfaction – the key unlocking the doorway to our selves – is the very thing we deny most. It is the door we most fear opening. So we keep the key far out of sight to prevent it from reminding us that there’s even a door to be unlocked. We design our lives and busy ourselves from dawn to dusk with activities that rob us of the time to soberly take up the meaning of life and what we need to do to make it truly meaningful.
Sometimes we’re the last to know how great we are, and how much greater we can become.
So we procrastinate – even for precisely that which we long for most. And there’s nothing we long for more than the expression of our deepest self. That’s why Hillel feels it vital to remind us that it’s not enough to be aware of the need; we have to act on it. Continually. Relentlessly. Otherwise, what’s life for? And if not now, when?