Two of my favorite poems (or sayings) are by Jewish religious leaders. I like them because they remind me of the fact that I need to be my own person, but my actions are so intertwined with who I am and what I do that it is hard to not have an impact on those around me.
The first is by Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859). I found various versions of this saying, but I am presenting it here as I learned it.
If I am I, and you are you; then I am I and you are you.
But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not and you are not.
First, I like this because saying it and listening to it is a little like watching a tennis match. You have to keep your eye on the ball as it volleys back and forth from “I” to “you.” It is fun to listen to and a bit of a brain twister as you are trying to make sense of it. I like the pure simplicity of it as well. I know, bouncing “I” back and forth nine times with one hand and bouncing “you” to and fro with the other hand at first is not really the definition of simplicity. It’s the literary version of patting your head and rubbing your tummy. But, there are only 11 different words used here in a 41-word stanza.
Think about what it means. “I am I” is that I am my own person with my own agenda doing my own thing. It is up to each of us to define and delineate who we are in the world. The word “I” is always capitalized in the English language (not necessarily in all other languages) as a reminder of our own self-importance to ourselves. Our own self-confidence and self-concept is important to the creation of our values, attitudes and beliefs. The “you are you” piece is the recognition of this I concept for all people. I gotta be me and you gotta be you. It is ok that we maintain our I-ness side by side, but in the end, we are responsible for ourselves. Doesn’t the Cher song say that in the end we all sleep alone?
So, having made the case that we are responsible to and for ourselves it would seem that we are being a little self-centered here. This is where my other favorite saying from these two Jewish leaders steps as a complement. I was visiting Edinburgh, Scotland one year. It was my first day and jet lag, and the fact that the sun was up at 4 in morning made me a little restless. I got up and ran. I ran by the Jewish Center and on the sign in front was this next saying. I stopped to memorize it and then ran back to the B&B and wrote it in my journal. It was a saying of Rabbi Hillel (110 BCE-7CE):
If I am not for myself, who is for me?
And if I am for myself alone, what then am ‘I’?
And if not now, then when?
I like this because, I think, he is saying that we need to stand up for ourselves and have a sense of our own identity and values. We have to make our way in the world and we have to tell people who we are, because, really who will do this for us? At the same time that we have to have the chutzpah to take a stand for ourselves we have to remember the world doesn’t revolve around us alone. If we don’t remember the others in our world, the world around us, and the collective then what are we really? Perhaps just a selfish (insert your own pejorative comment here) that is only out for ourselves. Finally, when are we going to start this? I just saw a Facebook picture post that said, “There are 7 days in a week and someday isn’t one of them.”
So perhaps I will try my own literary volley
And now I see that I gotta be me to contribute to the we.
And you can toss in a few to do what you can do.
Then together we can say that I am I is not an alibi