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August 2014

Can You See the Real Me?

When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter).

Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small.

The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of.

I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go.

There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows.

Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me.

I want to be like that.


Getting Born

ImagesQ: Do you have any children?

BD: Every man with medical problems has children.

Q: What are your medical problems?

BD: Well, there’s glass in the back of my head. I’m a very sick person. I can’t see too well on Tuesdays. These dark glasses are prescribed. I’m not trying to be a beatnik. I have very mercuryesque eyes. And another thing – my toenails don’t fit.

(Bob Dylan, in a 1968 interview)

I went to the doctor today. An orthopedist. (Thank you spell check.) I told him my upper left arm hurt, that I thought maybe I had arthritis, because my mother had that. He looked thoughtful. He put me through some motions — some fine, some that made me wince — and then he announced that I probably had rotator cuff (RC) issues. After an X-ray, he was more definitive: “Darn. Definitely rotator cuff” something or another.

I said what do you do for that. He said therapy. I said great, I need therapy. He said physical therapy. I said good I guess I need that too. I said why does this happen, and he said there was a chronological component to this. You mean old?, I said. He smiled. I’m regularly reminded that I am old as dirt. That’s OK.

At least I don’t have glass in the back of my head.

Q: What do you think of the new Bob Dylan?

BD: What’s your name?

Q: Dave Moberg.

BD: Okay. What would you think if someone asked you, What do you think of the new Dave Moberg? What new Dave Moberg?

I was walking across the street to the doctor’s office one day not long ago. A white-haired elderly man was walking briskly across the street, head down. When he reached me he looked up and said, ominously, “Growing old ain’t for sissies!” I nodded. I was thinking he’s not that much older than me.

The doctor said look, we do this, you’ll be a new man. The new Steve West? I’m skeptical about that. I’m thinking that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Bye, bye old; hello, new. But that’s not for sissies either. Growing new, growing younger, is hard.  And getting born is not an exercise, but grace.

Q: Why do some of your songs bear no relation to their titles?

BD: Give me an example.

Q: “Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35.”

BD: Have you ever been to North Mexico for six straight months?

Q: Not recently.

BD: Well, I can’t explain it to you then. If you had, you’d understand what the song’s about.

Ha, ha.

So I have my first therapy appointment tomorrow. The therapist is supposed to show me some exercises that will help get rid of this issue with the RC, eventually. Th last time I was here he put needles in me. Needling, they called it, though it’s really acupuncture. The doc said that if I can’t tolerate these exercises I can get a shot of cortisone. And if all that doesn’t work, I can have surgery. I can?

I’m not even going to say anything about the glass in my head. Or the mercuryesque eyes. Or my tendinitis, heel spurs, floaters in my eyes, or sleeping habits. But I might tell him about Queen Jane, Georgia Sam, Poor Howard, Mack the Finger, Louie the King, Cain and Abel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Cinderella, the Good Samaritan, Orphelia, Einstein disguised as Robin Hood, Dr. Filth, the Phantom of the Opera, Cassanova, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Angel, Sweet Melinda, Saint Annie, Louise, Johanna, the guilty undertaker, the lonesome organ grinder, a dancing child with a Chinese suit, Shakepeare, the senator, the preacher, the rainman, Ruthie in a honky-tonk lagoon, Queen Mary, sweet Marie, the Persian drunkard, Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (saying prayers like rhymes), John Wesley Harding (friend to the poor), Frankie Lee and Judas Priest (“don’t go mistaking Paradise for that Home across the road”), St. Augustine, the hobo, the drifter, the landlord, the immigrant, Frank, Vera, Terry Shute, and Peggy Day. (Take a breath.)

Thank you, Bob Dylan, for all those people, real or not.

And the Father of Night. The Ragman. The Bearer of All Burdens. And the One who makes all things new, even me. Even dirt. The One who makes the new Steve West.

I might tell him that Bob Dylan and me are not that much different. That he has ailments too. That he just writes better songs. That the new Bob Dylan looks old as dirt but is growing newer everyday. That eventually I’ll get over this RC thing and all the rest and all to come. Me and Bob Dylan. When he returns.

When He returns.

What are you getting at? What’s this blog post have to do with anything, anyway? What’s it mean?

Have you been to North Mexico Lately?

Not recently.

Then I can’t explain it to you. If you had, you’d understand what I’m talking about. I’m sure you would.