As a young man he painted pictures in Vienna, Europe’s cultural capital, and made a meager living selling postcard paintings to small shops. He saw himself as a man of sensitivity and aesthetic appreciation. People supposedly hired him to hang wallpaper to decorate their homes. Throughout his life he identified as an artist, even when his career took another turn and he eventually consigned millions of his fellow human beings to unspeakable horror and death.
I refer, of course, to Adolf Hitler, a man who didn’t understand who he really was. His false idea of himself as an artist — representative of the most refined form of humanity — blinded him to his own cruelty. It allowed him to regard whole classes of his fellow human beings as sub-human, worthy only of concentration camps and gas chambers.
Hitler’s example reveals the harm we inflict when we fail to grapple honestly with the question: “Who do you think you are?” Ignoring that question can result in misery, for others and for us.
Perhaps we regard ourselves as gifted with the right solutions to all the problems of life. People should take our advice, we feel, because we’re endowed with superior knowledge. Other people are ignorant, and we wonder why they avoid us since we could explain to them exactly where they’ve gone wrong, what they should believe, and what they need to do. (Interesting, isn’t it, how people with such all-encompassing wisdom often gain political office? Why are we not thrilled about that?)
Or, we may view ourselves as unemotional people who never yield to anger, or to tears. Since that’s who we are, we can never “fly off the handle” or rip into someone. When things happen that we don’t like, we never express our disappointment or disgust. We give ourselves credit because we’re not hurting others. But because we won’t cry or complain, we won’t laugh either. Someone in our life is starving for a sign of real emotion — good or not so good — on our part, but we’re not showing it because we’re “not that kind of person.”
Finally, maybe we see ourselves as victims of life circumstances, or the nasty behavior of other people. As someone who’s been mistreated or ignored, we’re entitled to clamor for attention and for our “rights.” We act selfishly because, if we don’t, somebody will take advantage of us. Or we may be only too aware of our shortcomings, and think so little of ourselves that we believe nothing we do could ever hurt anyone. As a result we hurt many people, especially those closest to us.
“Who do you think you are?” The truth is that we’re not the perfect example of humanity. As St. Paul said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” On the other hand, we’re not miserable victims either. Scripture teaches that we’re made in the image of God, responsible agents in managing our lives for good. Balancing these two truths, in the light of the guidance God gives through Christ and the Scriptures, can clarify who we really are.