A Case of Mistaken Identity

By Robert Brumet

This was written in September 2003 and was subsequently published in Unity Magazine. It focuses on the core issue of humanity today.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”¹ Henry David Thoreau wrote these words about one hundred and fifty years ago. He wrote them after living two years in a cabin by Walden Pond, near Concord Massachusetts. He went there to ponder the meaning of human life, and, in his words, to live deliberately.

I first read these words about twenty-five years ago. And immediately a thought leaped into my mind: “If Thoreau were alive today would he write these same words?” That question has haunted me for a long time.

So I invite you to join me in a fantasy. Let us imagine that Henry David Thoreau were to return to our world today and to deliberate on life as we now live it.

No doubt he would find the changes in technology rather startling, but having a very astute mind let us assume that he quickly learns how to operate our modern gadgetry. Turning on the television he tunes in to one of the many news broadcasts that are taking place. What would he see and hear? The same thing you and I see and hear when we turn on our television: reports of murders, shootings, wars, bombings, terrorism, political corruption, corporate scandals, riots, etc.

I imagine that he would be deeply shocked by what he saw and heard reported. And let’s imagine that later on he does some research and study to learn about life in our country today. He might learn about things that are known to many of us yet are seldom reported on the news broadcasts: things like domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, depression, teen-age suicides, street gangs, dysfunctional families, etc.

I imagine that he would also be shocked by much of this of the information. And doing more research and study into the health of our planet and the natural world, which he loved so well, I believe that he might be even more chagrined to read about phenomena such as air pollution, water pollution, overpopulation, the destruction of our forests, the accelerating extinction of many plants and animals, the depletion of our topsoil, holes in the ozone layer, destruction of the coral reefs, etc.

After spending a few weeks gathering such information, let’s imagine that Henry David decides to update his work. Would he write those same words: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”?

I don’t believe that he would. I say that because I believe that Henry David would see that today our desperation is anything but quiet! I believe that he would see that today our desperation has become very loud indeed!

And yet, in spite of everything said, I do not see any of these conditions as a real problem. It is not that I don’t believe that these conditions are serious- indeed they are! However, I see each of these, not as a problem, but as a symptom- a symptom of a deeper, more fundamental problem. I believe that the most serious problem facing humankind today is not political, or economic, or ecological, or psychological. I see that the most fundamental problem facing us today is a spiritual problem. And that problem could be stated as follows: the most fundamental crisis facing humanity today is that we don’t know who- or what- we really are.

Some would say that this has always been mankind’s condition. So, why am I so concerned? I agree that this condition has been here for a very long time, but today it has become a threat to our very survival. We can longer afford to live in ignorance of our true nature. Because of the burgeoning number of human beings on this planet, coupled with the rapidly growing technology of destruction, we can no longer live in ignorance of our true nature. We must wake up if we are to survive.

Another fantasy: Imagine that you are hosting a dinner party with some friends. You are enjoying good food and good company when a man- a stranger- walks into the room. Quite surprised, you get up to greet the man and ask him “Who are you”? With a blank look on his face, he responds, “I don’t know.” You reply, “Then, where did you come from?” “I don’t know.” “Well, where are you going?” “I don’t know.” You would probably rush back to your dinner guests and say, “Friends, this man has a serious problem!”

And yet, who is this “man?” He is virtually each one of us… if we are honest with ourselves. (Yes, we have beliefs and creeds and theories about who we are, but very few of us really know who we are.) And yet, in spite of his apparently dire difficulties, this man is actually better off than most of us! At least he knows that he doesn’t know who he is!

Most of us don’t know that we don’t know who we are. We don’t know that we don’t know who we are because we believe that we are someone that we are not! Most of us don’t know who we are, and we don’t know that we don’t know, because we have identified with a false sense of self. The vast majority of human beings are suffering from a case of mistaken identity!

William Shakespeare has written, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”² Most of us are like an actor in a drama who knows his or her role and script very well, but has forgotten who she- the actor- is.

When we enter this earthly stage we quickly forget our true identity. In the words of William Wordsworth, “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.”³ At birth we do not have a conscious sense of self. Yet very soon we are surrounded by individuals who are ready and willing to tell us who we are! In the words of one spiritual teacher, we engage a process called “somebody training.” We are carefully trained to be a particular “somebody.” (We are trained by individuals who believe they are qualified to tell us who we are because they are sure they know who they are!)

Like a dry sponge in a bucket of water, we absorb this conditioning deep into our psyches. This process is not unlike programming a computer, and until these programs are made conscious and examined by us, they continue to run our life.

We may have programs that tell us whether or not we are worthy of love, and if so, under what conditions. We may have programs that compare us with other people and tell us how we stack up. We may have programs that tell us how attractive we are, how smart we are, how competent we are, what we must do to survive, to be loved, to belong.

We have gender programming, racial programming, ethnic programming, religious programming, socio-economic programming. Virtually everyone and everything in our environment educates us as to whom we are and what we are to do. Our script is well established by the time we reach elementary school.

The vast majority of human beings lives out these roles and play out these scripts believing that this is who they really are and this is the way that life really is. Most people live the entire drama without ever questioning the validity of their assumed identity. And yet a part of us knows that we are fooling ourselves. Although this part of us is often silenced amidst the busyness and turmoil of our everyday life, we secretly feel the fear and the sadness of living disconnected from our true identity.

All that we see in our world is a reflection of what is inside of us. The world we create while living from this mistaken identity is a world based on fear and ignorance of truth. And thus we live in desperation- quiet, or otherwise.

How do we live beyond the illusion of our mistaken identity? I believe that all of the world’s religions ultimately address this very question. There are many spiritual traditions, ancient and modern, which seek to aid us in the discovery of our true nature. But I will attempt to answer this question with another story- a story which comes from the Sufi tradition.

Our story is centered upon a fictional character by the name of Nasrudden. This character is symbolic of the “wise fool” - the master who teaches us deep wisdom in the guise of foolishness. In this particular story, Nasrudden is standing in the lobby of a very large and prestigious bank in New York City and he is holding in his hand a check for a large sum of money. He walks to the nearest teller and attempts to cash the check. As he presents the check to the teller, the banker eyes him rather suspiciously because Nasrudden is dressed in rag-tag clothing and appears very unkempt. The teller says, “Sir, before I can cash this check you must identify yourself. Can you do that? Nasrudden replies, “I think so” and he reaches into his pocket. From his pocket he produces a small mirror. As he gazes intently into the mirror he says “Yes, that’s me.”

We can take this simply as a humorous anecdote- but there is much more to it. We begin to see the wisdom within the story when we ask the question “What was it the teller was looking for when he said ‘Can you identify yourself?’” Of course, he was looking for some “official” document such as a driver’s license or passport. He was expecting Nasrudden to identify himself with the identity that the world gave him. But he was wise- or foolish- enough not to respond in the expected way. Instead he reached for a mirror and looked right at himself- at his own face. He looked until he had a clear recognition and then he responded, “This is who I am.”

Would that all of us could be that wise! For life is always asking us to identify ourselves. Every decision we make, every action we take, is a way of responding to the question “Who am I.” And most of us respond from our social identity. We respond from the identity of who the world tells us we are. We respond the way the banker- and the world- expects.

If we could have the foolish wisdom- and the courage- to do as Nasrudden did and look right at our true identity … and respond from that place. But do we have the wisdom to look and the courage to respond in a completely authentic way?

It takes much more than will power to see our true face amidst the clamor of the world. It takes practice- lots of it. One of the best ways to see our true identity is through the regular practice of meditation. In the practice of meditation we gradually let go of our identification with our social identity, our personality. Our Buddhist friends say that in meditation we “look at our original face- the face we had before we were born.” Meditation is like the mirror that reflects back to our conscious awareness this original face- out true nature.

As we engage regularly in this practice we can begin to take this memory of our original nature into our everyday life. This is a big step because it takes wisdom and courage. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”4 This may not be the type of greatness that makes the newspapers but it is the type of greatness that will transform our world.

Each of us is called to this greatness, yet many dismiss this call because it is subtle, and because it is not validated by our external world. Yet the power of one who cultivates this skill and chooses to trust the wisdom of the original nature is incalculable. Such persons, though few in number, have often changed the course human history. We may believe that this power belongs only to a special few- but not so! It is within each of us. The time has come when we can no longer hide our greatness. We can no longer live in the illusion of our false self. We must wake up to survive!

¹ H.D. Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods, (NY: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1946) p7 ² Wm Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene 7 Line 139 ³ William Wordsworth, “Ode to Intimations of Immortality” 4 R.W. Emerson, Emerson’s Essays (NY: Thomas Y Crowell Co., 1926) p38