Who Do You Think You Are?

First reading     The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

“Naturally—and why should I not admit this—I have occasionally wondered to myself how things might have turned out in the long run had I not [acted differently] . . . . I only speculate this now because in the light of subsequent events, it could well be argued that in making [this] decision . . . I was perhaps not entirely aware of the full implications of what I was doing. Indeed, it might even be said that this small decision of mine constituted something of a key turning point; that that decision set things on an inevitable course towards what eventually happened.

“But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one’s past for such ‘turning points’, one is apt to start seeing them everywhere. . .”

Second reading Contre qui, rose? from Les Roses, Rainer Maria Rilke, translated into English by Barbara and Erica Muhl

Against whom, rose,

Have you assumed these thorns?

Is it your too fragile joy that forced you

to become this armed thing?

But from whom does it protect you, this exaggerated defense?

How many enemies have I lifted from you

who did not fear it at all?

On the contrary, from summer to autumn

you wound the affection that is given you.


Sermon                Who Do You Think You Are?        Amy Zucker Morgenstern

We live in the Information Age. All the facts we need, whatever information, whatever knowledge we might want to attain–they are closer and more easy to access than they have been for any people in history. But the flourishing of “alternative facts” demonstrates that what is needed at such a time as this is less knowledge than self-knowledge.

It is perfectly evident that a candidate we are considering for president in 2016 doesn’t know that Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014. He said so on television.

It is perfectly evident that Dustin Hoffman, Louis CK, Charlie Rose, and Al Franken have been credibly accused of sexual abuse. The facts are before our eyes.

We have plenty of knowledge. But these facts have no impact if we do not have self-knowledge. That’s what makes us take them in, care about them, and act on them. Without it, we can ignore them and maintain the worldview to which we have become attached.

Socrates said that the beginning of wisdom was the dictum carved in stone at the Temple to Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.” But it is not an easy thing to do at all. Powerful forces within us compel us to deceive ourselves.

Ultimately, however, we are happier when we are honest with ourselves: when we know ourselves; when the person we think we are is the person we actually are. For me it is an article of faith, and a conviction born of experience, that knowing the truth about ourselves is preferable to lies, however comforting and comfortable the lies may be. But it is not easy.

Fortunately, we have guides–many have arisen since Socrates to hold up a mirror and help us to see who we really are, so that we might know who we really are, “marvellously wrought” as Malvina Reynolds wrote in the hymn we sang–and the most marvellous thing about us is not that we are perfect, but that we can face our flaws and mistakes, hold them in tender compassion, and make ourselves better still. Many of our guides are the creators of fiction, stories of other human beings who struggle to set down their self-deceptions. It’s always easier to see other people’s self-deceptions than our own, so the novelist shows us others’ . . . and thereby our own. One of the wisest, most artful guides of our time is the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last month. It was profoundly deserved. Ishiguro explores, and exposes, the phenomenon of self-deception with devastating eloquence and abiding compassion. One of the many works in which he does so is The Remains of the Day.

It is the story of a butler, known to us only as Stevens, who near the end of his life is delving, oh so reluctantly, with many reversals and hesitations, into two great self-deceptions. One is that he spent most of his life serving Lord Darlington with great loyalty and a belief that in a small way, through his role as butler as important personages came and went, he was aiding Darlington’s work in foreign affairs. That work has proved to be corrupt and in fact steeped in evil: the near-victory of the Nazis and the destruction they wrought upon England and the world, for Darlington was a Nazi sympathizer and appeaser. The other of Stevens’s self-deceptions concerns his love for the housekeeper of the establishment, Miss Kenton, which he could never express to her because he could not acknowledge it to himself.

The novel proceeds as his mind proceeds, circuitously, skating close to the real issues but always dancing away. He talks about his staff plan. He talks about what makes a great butler. He talks about incidents in the life of a great English house and the triumphs he has had making a party go smoothly or a guest feel welcome. These detours are comical and also tragic, because each of the stories he relates, the bits of wisdom he shares, reveal the gulf between who he is and who he believes himself to be. Stevens defines professional success as never removing the costume, the role of butler; the pinnacle of his profession is to suppress his personal qualities, feelings, and convictions in deference to the needs of his employer. And given that his employer was an anti-Semite who sought to create a rapprochement between the British government and the Third Reich that would have been fatal, this suppression of self is not only sad, but sinister: an insistence upon “just doing one’s job

Stevens fired two maids for no reason other than that they were Jewish and so Lord Darlington wished it. But the wall between his scruples and his actions begins to crumble, and his self-deceptions are challenged, Stevens feels he has sacrificed the best of himself for nothing. Just as denying that aspect of himself that has feelings for Miss Kenton only costs him, in the end.

And yet we sympathize, because he does it all to protect himself. To know ourselves truly is an act of faith: the faith that, whatever ugly and mean things we acknowledge in ourselves–whatever past mistakes we face, –that painful process is something that we can bear and that will bear great happiness. But Stevens lacks that faith and so remains divided, hiding from himself the truths he thinks he cannot endure. Don’t we all, from time to time?

When we are dishonest with other people, it is because there is something true we wish them not to see. Oftentimes, in putting up this screen between them and reality, we are trying to protect them, or ourselves, or a third party. We lie to our children about the news to shield them from the harshness of events. We lie to our employers about work we’ve done to shield ourselves from their criticism and the consequences of what we’ve done or failed to do. We tell friend A that friend B likes them when she really doesn’t, in order to shield them from an unpleasant fact. When we deceive ourselves, we’re often doing the same thing: trying to protect ourselves.

That’s what Stevens is trying to do when he persists in the decision not to meet any longer with Miss Kenton; when he tells himself, for years afterwards, that it was a purely professional decision. He is putting a wall between the part of himself that glimpses the truth, and the part of himself that cannot bear to perceive that truth: that he was afraid of their growing intimacy and cut it short, when it could have led to love and happiness. He is protecting himself from regret and self-doubt. But a wall that blocks one part of us from another part can do us great harm in the long run. Regret and self-doubt hurt like the devil but they are our friends; they chip away at the wall to let us live as one united person in the truth. He says, “I was perhaps not entirely aware of the full implications of what I was doing,” but “with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one’s past for such ‘turning points.'” And the regret comes crashing upon him, having grown unbearably heavy with the years, the self-deceptions piled upon the original self-deception.

Rilke saw the joy and fear that cause us to armor ourselves against that which might bring us happiness.

Against whom [–he asks the rose–]

Have you assumed these thorns?

Is it your too fragile joy that forced you

to become this armed thing?

But from whom does it protect you, this exaggerated defense?

The thorns don’t protect the rose from enemies like the aphids and caterpillars, but do harm those who wish to caress it and admire it.

The armor we construct between ourselves and painful truths about ourselves, difficult facts about our past, has its uses, of course. Sometimes it is constructed in a time of trauma and must be dismantled very gently, with help, replaced by softer protections from a reality that is too great to be borne all at once. We can thank even our armor; it tried to keep us safe. But the problem with armor is that it is indiscriminate. It keeps out blows and makes it hard for us to move. The problem with a wall is that it blocks out real enemies and also friends that would enter if only we let them.

When we deceive ourselves, from whom does our exaggerated defense protect us? Not from ourselves, though we have adopted it for just that reason. It hurts us. It is armor with the spikes on the inside . . .

Now, usually when I preach on a problem, such as self-deception, I devote some time to offering some possible solutions. But as I was writing this, it became clear that if I were not going to speak for forty-five minutes, getting into solutions would require a second sermon. So please, come back January 14 and hear some of the things we can do to avoid deceiving ourselves. If we long to dismantle the armor, we have help, and that service will be devoted to discovering what that help is.