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    IDENTITY

    I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.

    Lily Tomlin in Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe


    In The Mask Behind the Mask, biographer Peter Evans says that actor Peter Sellers played so many roles he sometimes was not sure of his own identity. Approached once by a fan who asked him, "Are you Peter Sellers?" Sellers answered briskly, "Not today," and walked on.

    Today in the Word, July 24, 1993.


    Suffering from terminal spinal cancer at the age or 47, former North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano spoke with a reporter. He looked back on his life and told a story about himself as a 23-year-old coach of a small college team. "Why is winning so important to you?" the players asked Valvano.

    "Because the final score defines you," he said, "You lose, ergo, you're a loser. You win, ergo, you're a winner."

    "No," the players insisted. "Participation is what matters. Trying your best, regardless of whether you win or lose -- that's what defines you."

    It took 24 more years of living. It took the coach bolting up from the mattress three or four times a night with his T-shirt soaked with sweat and his teeth rattling from the fever chill of chemotherapy and the terror of seeing himself die repeatedly in his dreams. It took all that for him to say it: "Those kids were right. It's effort, not result. It's trying. God, what a great human being I could have been if I'd had this awareness back then."

    Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated, quoted in Reader's Digest.


    While walking through the forest one day, a man found a young eagle who had fallen out of his nest. He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a naturalist passed by the farm and asked why it was that the king of all birds should be confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens. The farmer replied that since he had given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaved as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.

    "Still it has the heart of an eagle," replied the naturalist, "and can surely be taught to fly." He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, "You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly." The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again.

    The naturalist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, "You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly." But the eagle was afraid of his unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally the naturalist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, " You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly." The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the naturalist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a triumphant cry, soared away into the heavens.

    It may be that the eagle still remembers the chickens with nostalgia. It may even be that he occasionally revisits the barnyard. But as far as anyone knows, he has never returned to lead the life of a chicken.

    Theology News and Notes, October, 1976, quoted in Multnomah Message, Spring, 1993, p. 1.


    The renowned artist Paul Gustave Dore (1821-1883) lost his passport while traveling in Europe. When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to one of the guards. Giving his name to the official, Dore hoped he would be recognized and allowed to pass. The guard, however, said that  many people attempted to cross the border by claiming to be  persons they were not. Dore insisted that he was the man he claimed to be. "All right," said the official, "we'll give you a test, and if you pass it we'll allow you to go through." Handing him a pencil and a sheet of paper, he told the artist to sketch several peasants standing nearby. Dore did it so quickly and skillfully that the guard was convinced he was indeed who he claimed to be. His work confirmed his word!

    Our Daily Bread, January 6, 1993.


    Setting out from Hamburg, Germany, one day to give a concert in London, violinist Fritz Kreisler had an hour before his boat sailed. He wandered into a music shop, where the proprietor asked if he could look at the violin Kreisler was carrying. He then vanished and returned with two policemen, one of whom told the violinist, "You are under arrest."

    "What for?" asked Kreisler.
    "You have Fritz Kreisler's violin."
    "I am Fritz Kreisler."

    "You can't pull that on us. Come along to the station." As Kreisler's boat was sailing soon, there was no time for prolonged explanations. Kreisler asked for his violin and played a piece he was well known for. "Now are you satisfied?" he asked. They were!

    Today in the Word, December 22, 1992.


    Alfred the Great was the ninth-century king who saved England from conquest by the Danish. At one point during his wars with the Danes, Alfred was forced to seek refuge in the hut of a poor Saxon family. Not recognizing her visitor, the woman of the house said she had to leave and asked Alfred to watch some cakes she was baking. But the king had other things on his mind and did not notice that the cakes were burning. Upon her return, the lady unknowingly gave her sovereign a hearty scolding!

    Today in the Word, April 9, 1992 Leadership, IV, 3, p. 94.


    In "A Portrait of America", Newsweek (l/17/83) poked some fun at the national census:

    Give your name and age and business. Is your husband working?
    Do you rent or own the building? Did you ever milk a cow?
    This is strictly confidential--are you underweight or fat?
    Does your husband have a bunion? Are his arches good or flat?
    Did you vote for Herbert Hoover? Are you dry or are you wet?
    Did you ever use tobacco? Did you ever place a bet?. . .
    Are you saving any money? Do you ever pay your debt?
    Are your husband's old red flannels in the wash or on him yet?

    "The Census Taker," Scott Wiseman 1940.

    "Uncle Sam's armies of statisticians don't really ask questions about the cleanliness of the old man's flannels, " writes Newsweek, "But they do ask about the state of our arches (2.6 million are flat or fallen). . . They can expound on life and its quality and on death and and its causes. They can analyze sex and birth, divorce and income, crime and eating habits. . . As a result, America knows more about itself than ever before."

    That may be true--yet people are still confused about who they are and the roles they are to fill. Could it be that in the thousands of questions, the census takers have overlooked the most important ones?

    "A Portrait of America", Newsweek, January 17, 1983.


    The dilemma of an unclear sense of personal identity was  illustrated by an incident in the life of the famous German  philosopher Schleiermacher, who did much to shape the progress of  modern thought. The story is told that one day as an old man he  was sitting alone on a bench in a city park. A policeman  thinking that he was a vagrant came over and shook him and asked,  "Who are you?" Schleiermacher replied sadly, "I wish I knew."

    Source Unknown.