Bonhoeffer: Who Am I?

This poem is from one of Bonhoeffer’s final prison letters, shortly before his execution. Though most of us are not facing certain death as he was, nevertheless I find the expressions in this poem relevant to what we may be experiencing and feeling in these uncertain days of pandemic and lockdowns.

• • •

Who Am I?
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out from my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
Fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

• Clifford J. Green, The Bonhoeffer Reader

11 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer: Who Am I?

  1. comes an age when people begin to ‘make peace’ with who they are, warts and all, and sure it’s humbling . . . but that may be the good part, a kind of self-acceptance that aligns more with reality and leaves a person less likely to compare and contrast one’s self to others;
    no need to ‘look up to’ anyone or ‘look down on’ anyone, just a really good look in the mirror and comes ‘acceptance’ of an imperfect person with an imperfect soul, more at home on the Earth than ever before, more at peace with everyone, more in need of and more receptive of grace than before

    comes an age when it’s okay to mourn that person you never could be that was so perfect, an age when one is more self-forgiving for one’s weaknesses and lapses of sanity, an age when permission is self-given to get off of the merry-go-round and be still for what time remains, an age even when it’s ‘okay’ to experience ‘joy’ and ‘thanksgiving’ and let go of the worry in spite of ‘the great sadness’ of the world, comes an age where ‘time’ begins to lose its grip and material things their charm and we don’t have to work so hard anymore at ‘being me’, we can just BE


  2. “Am I both at once?” My conclusion is a resounding yes! I have come to the conclusion that I must be accepting of my light and my darkness. I’ve also come to the conclusion that I can’t be taken by either. Becoming trapped, equally absorbed in one or the other, is the substantive and critical error in Christian living. Either one gets me completely out of whack. The net effect of pride or self pitying misery is to place my gaze upon myself instead of Christ so the result of either of those seemingly polar opposites is identical – self absorption. “So fixing our gaze on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith…”. I have a couple of extended family members, a mother and her daughter, who get on Facebook and regularly bemoan the fact that no one loves them. I want to tell them to walk out their freaking front door and kindly compliment a passing stranger or some other selfless act. Begging for or demanding love is the sure fire way to alienate everyone around you who fears being sucked into that vortex of self absorption. Fixing our gaze outward mysteriously opens the gates to let love in. Am I darkness or light? I’m both but enough about me, right? I think Bonhoeffer in inking this poem was clearly acknowledging this seeming dichotomy In the human condition. Every saint has a devil of a time.


  3. I read a lot of Bonhoeffer in my twenties and thirties. His heroic stature was inspiring, but also daunting to me. He had an aristocratic nature, he stood head and shoulders above the common run of humanity, above me. I can identify with his weaknesses and yearnings in “Who Am I?” — some of them — but not with the way others see him in the poem. I don’t “bear days of calamity serenely, smiling and proud, like one accustomed to victory” — never have, don’t expect to.


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