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The Only Way You Can Be You | Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | February 25, 2008

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Recently, as my patient students know, Schall was sidelined with a bout of pneumonia. Relax, I am not going to tell you how well I suffer, because I don't, or the details, of which not even I have the faintest comprehension. But no one spends time in a hospital without some insight into his own uniqueness. Bottom line is that it is Schall in the hospital with pneumonia, no one else. You know perfectly well, however, that yours is not the first case of this infection that famously records its scourges, the one after World War I being perhaps the most notorious. My uncle Harvey died of it.

The other thing you learn is that you cannot do what you intended to do. Others generously come to your aid. Again the theme, Schall is finite. The fact of finiteness, mine and yours, is a thought to which I often return. It is one of the great metaphysical issues. Still, one has to be touched by students, faculty, fellow members of the Jesuit Community, and friends who want to know how you, in your finiteness, are doing. Each of these people is also a limited being in a world full of finite beings. The very world exists. I think, so that we finite beings, you and I, who come across each other in this time and this place can know more than ourselves.

The fact is that sickness and pain have a purpose, both to indicate where the problem is and, in the Christian sense, to remind us to think of the redemptive purpose of suffering, itself the most enlightening of mysteries. Lent is in part designed to remind us of this connection, in case we forget.

The Holy Father in his recent encyclical, Spes Salvi, an extraordinary document, even encourages the old practice of "offering up" our suffering for the good and salvation of others. Why we human beings suffer brings us to the profoundest mystery. We belong together even in suffering. Redemptive suffering is the path that Father chose that Christ follow to redeem us. Suffering, even the suffering of the innocent, is not purposeless. Even our particular suffering or pain, which is so real to us, is modified by a walk through the very hospital ward you are in. There, you see others in far worse than you.

Yet, the real mystery of our lives is not so much our suffering but our wellness, our joy. Pain is easier to explain than delight. When one is sick, friends want to know how you are, meaning your health. When we are well, however, our bodies become secondary to what we do and know. Our bodies are the avenues through which we contact initially what is not ourselves, what is out there. But our sensory knowledge is directed to our minds, to figure out what it is all about.

Yves Simon has a remarkable passage in which he says that the only way that you can be you is that you not be anything or anyone else. At first this not being what is not you seems to make us isolated midst an abundance of otherness. The reason we are given minds, Simon adds, is precisely that what is not ourselves can become ours through knowledge. When we know someone or something else, what we know does not change what is known. This situation is something remarkable, really.

These powers of knowing and being, of course, suggest purpose. These things seem to fit together, our uniqueness and our capacity to know what is not ourselves without changing it. This is why the first act of our mind is contemplative. That is, it simply is amazed that something besides itself it out there, something that is not and cannot be ourselves.

Just after I made it out of the hospital, no mean feat, I received a card from a student in one of my classes. The card shows a collie dog running ahead by itself on what looks like an English country path. The path the collie is following winds off into the distance. Below this scene is found a passage from Tolkien. It reads: "All who wander are not lost." Wandering implies that we seek out, for no other reason than we want to know about it, what we do not yet know, what is not our unique selves.

The only way you can be you is if you are not something else. This is a profound principle. The principle applies to everyone. It is directly reflective of the richness of our existence as actual beings in the world. We are not the "immortals" but the "mortals," as the Greek called us. We are the only ones in the universe who know that we will die.
But we are also the only ones who suspect that the death of our finite being is not our ultimate end. We have more poignantly intimations of joy. Tolkien was right: "All who wander are not lost." Each existing thing that we wander into bears our condition. It could not be what it is unless it is not any of the other things that are. We are not lost. We are only wandering.

This essay was originally published in The Hoya, February 14, 2008, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, 20057-1200. (

Related Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Putting Things In Order | Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing
Why Do We Exist? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Pope John Paul II and the Christ-centered Anthropology of Gaudium et Spes | Douglas Bushman
The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

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