It takes courage to become an I

Alexandra Handwerk

Many people have a special gift which we sense from an early age will one day play a major role in their life. It can be musical or mathematical, a language or social gift. Yet such a gift always has to be turned into a skill through practice – because otherwise it simply remains a gift. I remember an old lady with a very imposingly deep and wonderful voice. I asked her whether she had used her voice professionally. She became quite sad. No, she said, ever since she was a child she had dreamt of one day becoming a singer and had sung from morning to night. But circumstances had always prevented her from training her voice. First the War, then the hardship of the time immediately after the War, then marriage and children. Indeed, she said, later on she had been ashamed to sing in front of the children because when she heard herself sing she only heard how awful her voice sounded – untrained as it was.

As we grow up, we gradually become aware that in addition to any gift we may have ourselves we have another very general one which we share with everyone else. We are all gifted to be an I. Gifted. Because when we have reached the age of majority at 18 we notice that here too we first have to practice before we have obtained the skill.

Until that time I have learnt to use my thinking and apply it to the phenomena of the world. In the world of my feelings I find a colourful mixture of sympathetic and unsympathetic facets. My everyday life consists of a mix of actions which are required of me and others which I enjoy and which make the day fun. All of that is part of me and I am measured against these things by my acquaintances. But a little voice within me constantly tells me that this is not really “me”. The I which is me is much larger, richer, clearer and at the same time more diffuse, future-oriented, still developing, and can on no account be compressed into what has been visible so far. “I” is the gift and the anticipation of the amazement about ourselves and others once it has become a skill.

The I practices through observation

But how can we train this “I”? Which skills come to appearance? And who trains it? No doubt everyone has already observed the following: something happens to me which I did not anticipate and I react to it without thinking. Immediately afterwards I am surprised by my own reaction – the extent of its intensity or indifference. But whatever my reaction may have been, when I observe it afterwards I know something more about myself than I did before. That is truly amazing! I have to observe myself in order to get to know myself.

How often does someone close to me tell me: but you always do it like this! And I am quite surprised: do I? Really? Do I always do it like this? I hadn’t noticed. Once again it is the other person who makes me observe myself. And what do I observe? I observe that I have long become someone. Through my upbringing, my environment, the way I have been shaped.

But that is not yet the end of the I’s gifts. It should not stop at observing itself and being amazed about itself.

The I matures through values

The I is also gifted with being able to make value judgements. It can assign or deny a value to what it observes. In order to discover this sphere of our own value judgements we have to go a level deeper than in observation. Where this sphere of value judgements can be found is most easily illustrated in contradiction. A friend recently said in the school playground: “The cashier at the supermarket just gave me ten pounds too much change. Wasn’t that lucky? I did well out of that shopping trip.” Another mother responds: “And you didn’t return it?” The friend becomes more vehement: “Why should I? The supermarket has much more money than I do, it’s the end of the month and the cashier doesn’t have to pay for it. It doesn’t hurt anyone.” But as she says it I notice that it does hurt someone – namely herself. Through the question of the other mother she has noticed that although she can justify her action, that superficially she might even be right, the moral value of this action is negative. She can justify her action as much as she likes, it is nevertheless based on a lie: the deception of a stranger.

Where we react to questions with: “What was I supposed to do?” Or : “But all I wanted was…”, or indeed: “But I’m right” – in each of these answers our I questions the value of an action. Because otherwise we would respond: “Because I am convinced it’s right”, or: “Because I’m happy to take responsibility for this action”, or: “Because I have decided to stand by this matter in this particular way”. And one thing becomes clear from that: in order to support this gift of our I, it needs one thing above all – courage. Because in the beginning we will have to cope with observing reactions and actions in ourselves whose value is doubtful and which we do “because I’ve always done it like that” or “that’s how we do it in our family” or “it was my gut instinct”. And the effort of reacting to every situation with the appropriate value, that is, with the full engagement of the I, appears almost superhuman.

If our I only had these two gifts, we would despair about ourselves. The better it could observe itself, the better it could assess the value of its actions, the more frequently it would be tormented by the fact that so many small actions throughout the day are not pervaded with the values of the I.

The I can transform itself

But the I still has a third gift: it has the gift to work in a transformative way. It does not have to stop at the observation and evaluation of itself and submit to that judgement.

A manager who had to attend many meetings each day told me that he previously lost his patience a lot. When that happened he started to shout and left the room. The older he became, the less this seemed an appropriate method to him because it did not lead anywhere, he said, apart from allowing him to vent his anger, and he suspected that because of it his colleagues sneered at him behind his back. He carried on for a while telling himself that he was right, it really was impossible in these meetings. But when this argument no longer felt right either, he for the first time seriously thought about whether he might not react in some different way. He thought and thought but nothing came to mind. But the daily meetings continued, of course. And at some point – because he did not want to start shouting again but did not know what else to do either – he stood up. Everyone thought that things would happen as usual, but he simply stood there, and because everyone was looking at him in silence he said very quietly: “And what should I do now so that you notice that we will not get any further like this? What language do you understand?” And one of his close colleagues answered beaming: “This is the language we understand! Please stay! We want to see together with you how we can get past this point.” On this day, he recounted, he felt reborn.

It requires courage to look at ourselves honestly; it requires even more courage honestly to evaluate the observation of our actions in thought, word and deed; it requires the greatest courage to transform ourselves publicly. To observe myself I need to create distance from what marked me during childhood and adolescence. My eyes are opened about myself precisely in separating myself from this first life community and growing up. In private I become aware of the values I want to live. But living them, showing myself in the helplessness which is part of every true transformation, and finally showing myself to be a transformed person, this I can only do with the help of other people.

My “old” friends will show their friendship with: “Stay as you are.” My “I” friends will help me to transform myself increasingly into becoming myself. Only a friendship which reckons with transformation and encourages transformation is a friendship from I to I.

All of us have the gift to become an I. Happy are those who in their childhood were permitted to learn an instrument or a sport and turn it into a real skill. They will know the conditions which apply to practice. They will know the meaning of repetition and patience, that small steps are more productive than grand goals, that “daily” counts but that the night is the best helper. That it is more fun with others. That some things happen as if by themselves and others keeps having to be practiced for years. That the path is the goal and there is no “finish”. And finally – that the awareness that everyone else is practicing as well is very reassuring.

About the author: Alexandra Handwerk is a freelance anthroposophist. She gives lectures, seminars and guides structured conversations.