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We Are Not Our Own

“We are not our own,” declare Brian Wren’s words in a song from our hymnal. The earth and nature form us, we are reminded, while “family and friends and strangers show us who we are.” There is no means to arrive at a sense of our self that does not pass through our relationships with others. The people who raise us, who teach us, who know us, who love or even who hate us – these people shape us. In the musical ‘Wicked,’ two characters – sometimes friends, sometimes enemies – sing to one another, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

Of course, someone does not need to know us in order to dramatically impact our lives. Artists and authors, philosophers and theologians, people whose ideas and expressions capture our minds and imaginations, mold our lives without needing to meet us or even live in our same era. Pressed to think of it, most of us have some book or song or idea we encountered somewhere along the way that is crucial to how we live in and understand the world. So we find our stories inextricably tangled up with Chuck D. or Ralph Waldo Emerson, bell hooks or Jorge Louis Borges. They do not know us, and we do not really know them, but some crucial piece of this unknown other has become a crucial piece of ourselves.

The connection between the reader and the author is

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real and profound – real enough that when I was 17, I sent Kurt Vonnegut an invitation to my highschool graduation. But the truth is that the profundity is not enough to overcome all the gritty truth of what separates us in real time and real space. So I was not surprised when I received no response, and only a little disappointed.

Yet, even though we know all these things, we are sometimes tempted to imagine ourselves as autonomous beings. “Yes, I have a bit of family, a few close friends, a favorite author perhaps; but now that I have been formed I am my own.” John Dunne’s line that “No man is an island,” is only repeated so often because its alternative is so seductive. To imagine that we owe nothing and therefore can be some perfect (and false) freedom in following nothing more than our own whims and wills.

A small news item from late last year reminds me of why this is exactly wrong. Ivan Fernandez Anaya was running a cross country race in northern Spain. Just shy of the finish, he was in second place behind Abel Mutai, a competitor from Kenya. Mutai had a clean lead – he was going to win – but he was confused by the arrangement of the course. He stopped after what he thought was the finish, with about ten yards still to go.

The crowd was shouting at Abel to keep going, but he didn’t have the Spanish to understand their instructions. Ivan could have raced by, reached the actual finish, and won the race. Afterwards, in fact, his coach would argue that he should have done just that. But instead, Ivan slowed, got Abel’s attention, and guided him to the last section of the course and first place. In a world where we are all separate, alien, and without responsibility to one another, Ivan should have kept going at his best speed, and won the race for himself. But the world I choose, the world my heart tells me is real, and the world that I want for myself and for everyone I love, is the world where the other person is part of the equation. Where even a stranger – especially a stranger – shows us who we are, by whether we decide to treat them according to convenience, or according to what is right.

In Faith,

Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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