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THE Human Question: Who Am I?


Looking at the clear evening sky, David wondered: 
“Why do you bother with me?
Why take a second look my way?”


Centuries later, another person asked the same question: Who Am I?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer came of age during Hitler’s reign. As a young adult, he attended prestigious universities. Afterward, he quickly became a world-renowned theologian, lecturing in Germany, Britain and the United States.

However, believing that the reign of Hitler would end, he founded a  small, clandestine seminary, the purpose of which was to train pastors for post-Hitler Germany. Bonhoeffer also played a role in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life (see movie Valkyrie). As a result, he was arrested for crimes against the state. In February 1945, he was secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg. He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp.

One month before his execution Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: Who Am I? Though he was an intellectual giant, he expressed bewilderment and confusion about his authentic identity. His fellow prisoners perceived him one way. Am I then really that which other men tell of?”  But inwardly, Bonhoeffer saw himself quite differently. Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.” 

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 I thought, it was 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 contemptibly 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.