I had quite a sobering experience this week. I had decided that, because I had been considerably inconvenienced, the person I deemed responsible richly deserved a piece of my mind. It was not the first phone call I had made in this connection, but I decided that it would be the last.

Several minutes into the telephone conversation, I realised with a sinking feeling that the person responsible for the ‘inconvenience’ was in fact myself. Mumbling a quick apology, I had the grace to acknowledge that the misunderstanding had been on my part.

I put down the receiver and, from the ensuing silence within, something seemed to scream ‘Me wrong? Impossible!’ Clearly I was hearing a part of myself that firmly believes it is never wrong. Yet, if I think about it for even a few moments, I realise that, if there is a Book of Mistakes, I must have indubitably touched on almost every entry in it.

As I sat there, I had a vivid memory of reading a newspaper article in 1980, just after our return from London, about a German family that had arrived in Dublin shortly after World War II.

They were Catholics, part of the flotsam of war, brought here through the good offices of a religious order. It was reported that the nuns considered them a ‘lovely’ family. The wife was so sweet, the children a delight. The husband clearly loved animals, was always surrounded by dogs, and he had taken up again his passion for horses and horse riding.

Some months after their arrival, greatly to the nuns’ surprise, the family unexpectedly announced their imminent departure for South America. Some time afterwards, it was discovered that the husband was a Nazi, wanted for a long list of atrocities perpetrated against the Jews in a particular concentration camp. Some examples of his cruelty were truly bizarre. Yet people who had known him could vouch for his apparently genuine love of animals, and for the fact that he was a good father and husband.

I could not help but remember the details of that story as I sat in front of the silent telephone. Is it possible that we live in compartments inside, each insulated from the other, so that we never experience the clash, the contradiction of mutually exclusive selves?

It seemed inappropriate to ask myself at that moment ‘Who am I?’ Far better to ask ‘What am I?’

I have come to realise that this question, “What am I?” has to come first. It is the beginning of a refining process; later, the fundamental question, ‘Who am I?’, can be sounded.

John Killeen