Permission to be yourself

by Su Fern Khoo


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Some essentials to becoming who we are in an intercultural and international community

Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their individual lives. They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint . . . . They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to have somebody else's experiences or write somebody else's poems.
-Thomas Merton

Every single person is Gift. Merton’s poem poignantly reminds us of this and how the fullness of being Gift is in living all of our life without annulling any part of what has made us who we are. This means acknowledging all the facets of our life and all that will continue the unfolding of our true selves. It is our ongoing story, which is our history, culture, background, personality, and experiences. It is everything that is and that has been our good, bad, light, shadow and potential. To embrace my whole life and live my very life is where Gift begins.

Although as religious we often deepen the understanding of our true worth being in God alone and not in what we can do or produce, penetrating the layers that makes a person tick is still a lifelong journey of becoming. It seems that Merton's poem alludes to something inherent to our human nature – falling into comparisons and never quite believing enough in the value of one's self and what she or he has to own, live and offer.

Yet all the while, it is who we truly and wholly are, lived and shared, that is the core of our creativity and holiness. This implies that we are freed from needing to feel we must have outstanding “gifts” or “talents.” Hence, when I give myself the permission to live every part of my life and become my true self in it, the Gift I already am is more fully given to others and the building of God’s kingdom.

But there is more.

The sense of self is never without a context. While recognizing that there is much more on this topic, I wish to highlight just two keys of awareness that I have found essential for my continuing journey as a person and minister in a globalized world, as well as a religious in an intercultural and international community. The first key is the historical consciousness of each person and their ethnic cultural group and the second is the hybrid identity or Nepantla existence, particularly my own.1, 2

During my theological studies, I encountered the fascinating importance to pastoral ministry of becoming aware of historical consciousness that impacts and influences our lives as individuals and ethnic groups in an invisible way.

It is what Archie Smith Jr. and Ursula Riedel-Pfaefflin call “’invisible forces’ [that] operate outside of our awareness. They are unseen and often unrecognized dynamic forces that operate indirectly behind the backs of individuals and institutions. They represent the complex, inner dimensions of the visible world... [the] nonrational, unrecognized, immaterial forces in the life-world that influence and even help to determine human outcomes.”3

I realized that every self has a much longer history than just the years an individual has lived, and this matters. It has been important to me to become aware of historical events influential to myself as a member of my specific family, as someone of a distinct cultural group (Straits Born Chinese) from Singapore, and as a person belonging to a religious community with particular cultural foundations (Spanish) that has now evolved into an international community. This is vital to understanding myself acting in this world and in community and to how others act towards me.

Moreover, God might in different ways be liberating me through the awareness of historical memory rather than my carrying on mystified by unexplainable perceptions and reactions. As Smith and Riedel-Pfaefflin put it: “The past bleeds through present day events and historical memory can become a source that influences the way we understand (or misunderstand) right relations with God, our ancestors, one another, nature, and ourselves.”4

Bringing this understanding into my lived community experience was like having scales fall from my eyes. I also recognized how each of my sisters in community were far more than their particular reactions or personalities, but rather each embodied histories of their families, cultures and nations in unique ways. Even more, as a community, our stories, histories and experiences are being woven one into another creating something new within each one of us.

Tied to historical consciousness and the interweaving of stories in community is the second key of awareness: my hybrid identity. For so long I struggled with being of Chinese descent but not being ‘Chinese’ enough, being westernized as a Singaporean and having lived in the U.S for over 17 years, and yet not entirely a “westerner.”

It was a great relief to finally realize that I cannot identify myself with any homogenous cultural identity, but that I am a ‘new creation’ of mixed cultures. Instead of living an unconscious clash of cultures and not being able to understand why I didn’t fit in any particular cultural category, I now gave myself the permission to go beyond set categories and discover who I am in the complexity of the cultures that I inimitably embody. As Julia D.E. Prinz, expresses in “Who Am I? Nepantla, Mestizo and Amphibolous: Care across Cultures,” the concepts of Nepantla, Mestizo and Amphibolous can help us understand cultural influences and how as pastoral ministers in the church today we can “be adequately present in the cross-cultural situation.”5

The importance of understanding the influence of culture(s) on a person is crucial to us who belong to a diverse international community that strives for an intercultural harmony that is just. Moreover, as our Church continues on the trajectory of globalization and evolves towards a less “westernized” center, the awareness of hybridity and culture become immensely important.

As Prinz points out, “cultural identity is intimately interwoven with the social and personal identity [and it necessarily] calls attention to the complex interrelation of culture with the other dimensions that makes up the person. It encompasses psychosocial, political, religious, ethical, existential and intra-psychic phenomena.”6

Furthermore, I appreciate Prinz’s explanation of Nepantla as “those having crossed a border, having crossed frontiers, and having being existentially changed by it.”7 It is an in-between state; a “being in the middle,” which carries much ambiguity, as well as richness in the person that I am, that many of us are, and that most are likely becoming.

As we welcome in new sisters from different countries and backgrounds, we no longer need to physically cross borders or frontiers to enter the reality of the hybrid identity. What is important is to recognize our own Nepantla journey and those of others so that we can help each other come to know our true self in all our life context.

The work of becoming who we truly are does not come cheap. Struggle is to be expected in any metamorphosis, as is the fullness and freedom that follows. The permission we give ourselves to become our true self is to daringly embark on the journey of seeing, integrating and becoming all we are without leaving any part of ourselves out. It is the liberation that makes us Gift because we fully live, and so inadvertently present others the reason for entering their own journey and discovering more deeply their own unique participation in creating God’s kingdom.

1 - The concept of historical consciousness is taken from Archie Smith Jr. and Ursula Riedel-Pfaefflin, Siblings by Choice: Race, Gender, and Violence (Chalice Press: Saint Louis, MO, 2004), in particular their chapter on “Invisible Forces Determining Human Existence,” 48-72.
2 - Many theologians have been developing and writing on the hybrid identity. To name a few, Gloria Anzaldua on the understanding of Nepantla, Virgilio Elizondo on the concept of Metizo, and Fumitaka Matsouka on Amphibolous. In this article, I refer mainly to Julia D.E. Prinz’s work “Who Am I? Nepantla, Mestizo, Amphibolous: Care across Cultures,” in The Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Pastoral Care, ed. Bernadette Flanagan and Sharon Thornton (Bloomsbury Continuum: London, 2014), 172-185.
3 - Smith and Riedel-Pfaefflin, Siblings by Choice, 51.
4 - Ibid., 55.
5 - Prinz, “Who Am I,” 173.
6 - Ibid., 175.
7 - Ibid., 183.