Hank Hill, Thomas Merton, and Soren Kierkegaard: Who You Are (And Are Not)

Hank Hill, Thomas Merton, and Soren Kierkegaard: Who You Are (And Are Not) May 13, 2023

Hank Hill, Merton, Kierkegaard Portraits
Hank Hill (Wikipedia-20th Century Fox promo image), Merton (portrait by John Howard Griffin–Flickr), Kierkegaard (Wikimedia commons)

There’s a simple wisdom in the mild comedy of the late 90s/early 2000s TV show, King of the Hill that is due for some renewed appreciation. Hank Hill, a straight-laced, suburban Texan, husband, father, and seller of propane and propane accessories lives a good life. He does his best to love his family. He takes pride in his work. He cares about his friends and his community. Yes, it’s a cartoon, but those sure sound like the basic ingredients for a good life. 

Who You Are (and Are Not)

I haven’t watched it in years, but there is one line that makes an appearance in my mind from time to time. An out-of-town client berates Hank, a proud and native Texan, throughout the episode, wanting him to play out every Texan stereotype he can think of. Finally, enough is enough and Hank says he does want his business, not in this way anyhow. Meanwhile, Hank’s school-age son, Bobby, is writing a report on his hero (his dad). At the episode’s close, Bobby reads us the line, “…he doesn’t wear cowboy boots because he’s not a cowboy.”  A seemingly mild statement weaved into a speech about his dad, but something struck me about this and has obviously stayed with me. There is something so simple and affirming about accepting what you are and also, what you are not. It’s easy to imagine Hank grew up in Texas loving stories and shows about cowboys, but the fact of the matter is, he is not a cowboy. But that doesn’t mean he is nothing or falls short of his true self. He is something else. There are lots of heroes I have. Lots of ways to be that sound interesting and meaningful, but there’s great freedom in knowing I am not and will not be all of those things.

Identity, Sanctity, and Salvation

In New Seeds of Contemplation, American Trappist monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, offers this on identity:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it! 

The Purpose of Freedom

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in understanding how to live, in discovering our identity, and in walking the given path on the way to our destiny in Him. We’re always free, but we’re not always who we are meant to be. Sometimes it takes a Prodigal Son-like journey of freedom, despair, and redemption to see what our freedom is for. In this restless and sometimes painful searching, it becomes clear that freedom is not simply to follow every whim without restriction, but rather to discover what truly satisfies our heart. To rest when our heart finds a home in being a son or daughter of the Father.

Despair and the Self

In The Sickness Unto Death, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard examines identity further using the theological concept of despair. He takes us through the three levels of despair (in a much more sophisticated and nuanced journey than this summary of course). In the first, one is not aware that he is in despair of not being himself. Second, one is in despair of not wanting to be himself. Finally, one is in despair of wanting to be himself, though is not yet. Always in some form of despair. If nothing else, experiencing the innocent suffering of being separated from our Creator, our origin and destiny. Certainly, there are flashes of the dramatic and moments of intense realization about who we are. But Kierkegaard warns, and perhaps modern society is especially apt at offering diversions, the loss of one’s self can be so subtle we hardly notice: “The greatest hazard of all, losing the self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” “Stay awake and pray,” Christ cautions us (Matthew 26:41). Our freedom is always in play. What am I saying “yes” to? What am I saying “no” to? What am I living for?

What Do You Want to Be?

Hank Hill is somewhere along this journey. He knows that saying yes to something implies saying no to others. I am something distinct. I am not everything or nothing. Thomas Merton exposes us to the masks we play with. There’s a time to outgrow make-believe and seek the truth of who we are to its depths. And Kierkegaard accompanies us through the long haul, the bittersweet suffering of continually striving towards the true self but not yet there. Each helps to start the journey to the true self by recognizing who we are not. In fact, in a way, each helps us see we are free to be just about anything, but the most satisfying is discovering who we were meant to be all along.

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