If Only

‘If only,’ I think for the hundredth time… If only my pitching arm had lasted a little longer, or my teeth had been a little straighter, or my conversation more funny. So many things that might have been if only I were different.

It’s very near the heart of life, this longing to be more, this suspicion that it would matter. And the suspicion is probably true. Our circumstances often hinge on smaller things than these.

But this raises a question we hardly have words to discuss.

Somehow, the sum of our attributes and circumstances – however thoroughly and sensitively we perform this calculation – does not add up. The result is real and important, but the most real and important thing has been left out.

We all know this, or our world would be a different place. We would choose a spouse as we choose a vacuum cleaner, and friends as we choose a refrigerator. We would not care who someone is, only what. We would love them for their size and shape, their capacity and color.

If this seems a poor way to live, consider our national discussion. We are told to do this very thing, to blur the distinction between who people are and what they are – to sort them by the features of their bodies and overlook the features of their souls. We are told that changing our body changes our identity. We are told that what we are is who we are, and none of this is true.

In fact, we cannot change what we are. We are born into a particular body – its genetics and appearance, its potential for strength, and for weakness. We are born into a place and a time. We are born into a family. These things are real and important, but they are not our identity. They are the shape of our world but not the shape of our soul.

Of course, I am saying the obvious, but only because we are asked to forget the obvious. MLK hoped his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,” and this is the obvious good we are asked to forget – that we are, above all else, a soul with a particular shape which we have chosen, moment by moment. That shape is who we are and, in a just society, how we will be judged.

On this anniversary of our nation’s founding, it’s still true that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” That’s a strong foundation for a just and peaceful society, even on Earth, where our attributes and circumstances are – and will always be – highly unequal.

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