"Who am I?" was written in prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, shortly before his execution by the Nazi's. It speaks to the basic question of self that haunts our human condition: is our identity, our value, dependent on what others think of us, or are we what we think of ourselves? In this poem, Bonhoeffer, one of the theological giants and martyrs of the 20th century, gives us a precious glimpse into his own struggle with questions that haunt us all: am I the hero they tell me I am (or should be) or I am the terrified frailty that I know myself to be?
In each of our lives, at one point or another, we struggle with these questions. What is my value to the world? Who am I? This struggle is the dark night of the soul. In his triumphant and utterly vulnerable final line, Bonhoeffer surrender's himself to the Higher Power and discloses to us the only answer that brings new life in our human wilderness. In the end our infinite value and the infinite value of every human being, lies in the knowledge that we are all, each and every one of us, children of God. "Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
"Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as through it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing
My throat, yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely question of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou Knowest, O God, I am thine."
The poem is as quoted in Douglas John Hall, Waiting for the Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant "Establishment" (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012), 94; translated by J.B. Leishman, and reproduced in G. Leibholz's 'Memoir' of Bonhoeffer, in Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 15.
Rev. Mark F. Sturgess