A rule of thumb: If you need to ask anyone that question, you likely know the answer already: “NO!” Even though this exchange may be a common experience, some folks still find it necessary to ask the question. (And perhaps have difficulty responding to the rejoinder, “And why do you ask?”)
Why do any of us want to continue a conversation that likely begins with the lonely or empty feeling of not being known for who we are? In some cases, the arrogance of *privilege: Someone has called us on our behavior—e.g., a highway patrol officer pulling us over for speeding. “Do you know who I am?” could be our attempt to avoid accountability because of our (imagined) special status.
In some ways, we all are special—we’ve gathered experience, excellence, wisdom and status. We may consider our accumulation of years as ample reason for deserving treatment or regard that’s distinct from others. We may want to ask the question to get what we think others owe us.
Not much good comes from today’s question, or its aftermath. More than a little awkwardness can creep into a conversation or relationship. If we force the matter—“Well then, let me tell you who I am!”—we set up a power dynamic in which someone loses—likely us!
The question can also have a completely different cast. As we grow older, it’s possible that we have outlived our contemporaries, moved to a new locale, found ourselves increasingly among strangers—doctors, neighbors, church members, care-givers—and exist in perpetual loneliness. Our past qualities or accomplishments are unknown to those around us, and so we can be relegated to vanilla-anonymity—“He’s old; nothing special there.”
At this time in life, our spirits can ache for levels of recognition that match our extensive self-knowledge, our high self-esteem. Even though our past roles, honors or relationships still inform our inner life, those around us may be clueless about who we really are. We are not just quiet, unassuming assisted living residents, or “that nice older woman in the back pew.”
I know these feelings, so I sometimes want to insert today’s title question into conversations. Not out of arrogance, but because I realize how my history, skills or knowledge could be useful, encouraging or calming. Unknown, I can’t be helpful.
How do I make myself known? I wait to be asked, and listen intently. Because I come from a family tradition in which we learned not to call attention to ourselves, to avoid arrogance (and arrogant people), I hope to find and bring out the excellence of others. **The example of Jesus is always front-and-center. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15)
So, how well-known are you? How do you handle anonymity that’s not helpful? How do you hold on to your self-esteem without asking others to notice you? Whose (older adult) excellence can you bring out into the open?
An ultimate assurance seems necessary here: God knows you—dearly, fiercely, always. God’s “YES!” to today’s question shows up in small places and quiet moments with others. Even if you are never fully known—is this even possible or desirable?—you can be secure in being grateful for who you are.
All of it a gift from God!
*“Privilege” comes from a Latin root that literally means, “private law”, so the question can be our way of asserting some kind of superiority over against rules, expectations or requirements. “Executive privilege” is perhaps the ultimate example of this wrong-headed approach to responsibility, evoking the presumption of being above or beyond the law.
**From a plaque on my desk: “The greatest good we can do for others is not just to share our riches with them, but to reveal their riches to themselves.”