For those not old enough to remember, Popeye was a cartoon sailor who gained super strength by eating spinach. After winning a battle, Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam. I’m Popeye the Sailor man.” (I guess the speech problem came about because he never seemed to remove the pipe from his mouth.)
Popeye’s gospel is prevalent and powerful in our culture. It is thought to be quite an accomplishment when I can say “What you see is what you get.” It can be a boast of self-confidence that I have nothing to hide, that I have no illusions about myself. It might also be an apology that I can be no more. Whatever it means, the gospel of Popeye is often referenced in one form or another. It is the gospel of the eternal search for myself.
I often quote Popeye’s gospel to God. “Look, God, you have to forgive me. I am what I am, and you know how I got to be the way I am. I am a mix of hurt and history, success and failure, soul and flesh. Please, Lord, you have to accept me as I am and forgive me, because I can only be what I am. In fact, I don’t really know who or what I am. Don’t expect any big changes..” Hmmm…the only thing I lack is a can of spinach, a nice sailor’s suit, and a pipe.
The Gospel of Jesus is quite different. St. Paul said in Galatians 2:20 that “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.” The Blessed Augustine put it this way: “Where I am not I, I am more happily I.” This is an interesting way to say it, and it is the exact opposite of Popeye. The search for myself is a futile search for there is nothing to find. Popeye’s idea that I should just be happy with what I am never seems to satisfy for very long. I find myself reaching for my can of spinach because I want to be stronger, wiser, and better looking, of course, The problem is, it doesn’t last long. It does not help me find who I am.
Christianity is not a search for self-identity or self-fulfillment. It is a search for Christ and not only to make him my own, but to realize that the life I now live, I live by faith in Him who loved me and died for me. His life is now my life, and I no longer live, but He lives through me. I don’t have to settle for Popeye’s gospel. I no longer have to search for meaning or struggle for some understanding of myself. When I am not I, I am most happily I.
Don’t misunderstand. St. Paul said that this wonderful life is lived “in the flesh.” Here is the battlefield because my human impulses will rise up against this divine inner reality. Every moment, I can follow my fallen nature, or I can let Christ live in me. Of course, I fail at this, but at least I have a choice. Before my birth at baptism, I could only follow my human nature. Now there is another life in me and when I do consent to what my mind tells me, I know that it isn’t me who refuses, but the grace comes from the One who lives in me.
Popeye had an arch enemy, Bluto. Often, Bluto would always come to spoil what Popeye was doing, and he would momentarily get the best of Popeye. At that moment, Popeye would reach for his can of spinach and he would swallow the whole can in one gulp. Instantly he would gain super strength. With this power, he would defeat Bluto. Then the power of the spinach would fade away. At the end, Popeye would sing his victory song- I yam what i yam.
We too face our own Bluto and for most of us, he dwells in our human nature. He dreams of freedom and strength. He longs and struggles for it.. Fulfillment and accomplishment, pleasure and self-satisfaction, fame and fortune-these kind of things Bluto says will help me find myself. It is a hall of smoke and mirrors, but Bluto is insistent. I too need a can of spinach to defeat him, but it will not be found in a search for myself. The right spinach is found elsewhere (the leaves of the Bible is a good place to start chewing).
I am not what I am, and when I am not, I am most happily I. When I let Christ live his life through me, when his life is my life, I find myself. Then there is a peace that passes all understanding.
If it isn’t clear, eat more spinach!