Confidence on the one hand and utter vulnerability on the other

I don’t know how Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa will rule in the Oscar Pistorius case, now nearing an end in South Africa. But I thought a story in today’s New York Times by writer Alan Colwell captured well part of the tension felt in the soul of humankind with this sentence…

“But even as the trial nudged toward its closing stages after testimony from almost 40 witnesses, Mr. Pistorius, 27, was again depicted as a man of contradictions, torn between supreme achievement on the track and a profound sense of private vulnerability away from it.” (Emphasis mine)

Colwell’s paragraph reminds me of a line from Thoreau who once said: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation…”  The piece also caused me to recall a haunting poem by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was imprisoned and ultimately hanged at age 39 just 2 weeks before Germany fell in 1945.

While in prison awaiting his fate Bonhoeffer wrote a poem entitled: “Who am I?”

In the poem, Bonhoeffer acknowledges that some people did in fact speak well of him and that he himself could and did feel quite confident, even in prison…

“Who am I? They often tell me I would talk with my jailers freely and friendly and calmly, as though it were mind to command.”

But in a later stanza Bonhoeffer admits…

“Am I then really all that which other men tell of?  Or am I only what I 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 expectation 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?”

Then he expresses the tension he felt between feeling hopeful on the one hand and completely powerless on the other.  Surely he speaks for us all in saying:

Who am I? This or the other?  Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?  Am I both at once?

Bonhoeffer answers his own question by throwing himself, as all humankind ultimately must, at the mercy of God:

“Whoever I am, thou knowest, O Lord, I am yours.”

Indeed, “torn between supreme achievement on the track and a profound sense of private vulnerability away from it.”

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