The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.
`Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
`What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!’
`I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir’ said Alice, `because I’m not myself, you see.’
`I don’t see,’ said the Caterpillar.
`I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,’ Alice replied very politely, `for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.’
`It isn’t,’ said the Caterpillar.
`Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,’ said Alice; `but when you have to turn into a chrysalis–you will some day, you know–and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?’
`Not a bit,’ said the Caterpillar.
`Well, perhaps your feelings may be different,’ said Alice; `all I know is, it would feel very queer to me.’
`You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. `Who are you?’
Which brought them back again to the beginning of the conversation.
– From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, chapter 5, “Advice from a Caterpillar.”
I seem to always come back to this passage from Alice whenever I am in a time of transition. I had the interesting experience this week of visiting three of my four alma maters. Sunday evening I was in Cumberland, MD and took a walk around Fort Hill High School the night before the start of the school year. Then on Tuesday I was in Madison, NJ visiting Drew University. I was a bit surreal to be there to say goodbyes on the first day of classes. Finally, last night I went to Baltimore to see a college friend who still lives near the Loyola University campus, and so I drove past my old dorms on my way home. I have always enjoyed my occasional trips back to these sites. Being there allows me to remember who I was in that space and draw on the ideals and energies that were core to me in those times and places with those communities. After all, who we are shifts and changes as we become part of different groups of people and enter different stages of life. New experiences and expectations continually shape us anew. For me, the opportunity to return to physical spaces often served as a reminder not only of the gift of my varied experiences but also as a guard against complacency. I could look at the person I was at any given moment and the choices and activities I was making each day, and compare that to who I was at other times and see what was different. Sometimes the changes were for the better, sometimes not. No matter what, though, the visits gave me a boost of reflective energy to help shape what I was doing.
That boost didn’t happen this time, though; at least not in the same way. To be sure, I enjoyed visiting with the people I saw, but my reaction to the places was a feeling of distance and disconnect. I don’t belong there anymore. Obviously I am not a high school or college student anymore, nor am I a grad student any longer. More than that, though, my feeling was that as much as those places are gifts to who I am now, what is essential to my new transition is not looking to my past for inspiration but rather to what I do not yet know. I told Wendolyn earlier this week that now that we are near the end of list of details that have to be taken care of before we can fly out on Monday I am beginning to have moments of feeling a bit nervous. It is not doubt about what we are doing, though. I have been called, well prepared, and given the necessary gifts to take on the role that is before me. Rather than doubt, the nerves comes from a realization that in order to be who God is calling me to be as a professor at Sabah Theological Seminary and do what God is calling me to do, I need to grow beyond who I currently am. One level of this is simply being able to see myself in the role of seminary professor. I’ve known so many wonderful seminary professors; to see myself as one is a bit of a challenge. Even more, though, is the need to grow through getting to know the people of Malaysia and particularly the church communities that I will be a part of there. Who are these brothers and sisters in Christ, and who will I be in their midst? I am sure answering those questions will be a slow and ongoing process of living together, and that there will be times of confusion and not quite knowing who I am, just like Alice going through her many sizes. I look forward to it, but at the same time realize it won’t be easy. I trust, though, that through the experience I will be in a way I have not been before. A new me will be brought forth.
“Who are you?” the caterpillar asks. I can’t wait to find out anew!