“Who am I?” A Poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

birdblackandwhiteblurcagephotographysilhouette-0f0d10c2c4a519c4aac9482591d3948a_h

In times like these, I’ve been drawn to the letters of folks like Samuel Rutherford and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who both wrote a good deal in isolation and imprisonment. This poem by Bonhoeffer is one that was crafted in a letter during his time in prison not long before his execution, and it is one with a good deal of relevance for us in isolation:

Who am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Letters & Papers from Prison”

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 though 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 expectations 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 today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Like an apple carved down to the core, isolation has a way of shaving us down to our most fundamental longings. When we are stripped of everything, perhaps the most fundamental question is not “What can I do?” or “Where can I go?” but “Whose am I?”

Lord, remind us always, but especially in times like these, that we are yours and yours alone.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s