You Will Never ‘Find’ Yourself
Have you ever had a ‘sliding doors’ moment? One of those fork-in-the-road moments where you were left wondering years later, ‘I wonder what would have happened if I took the other option?’ Like, what would have happened if you took that other job, married that other person, stayed overseas a bit longer, studied that other course? Yet beyond the question of what might have happened is a deeper question – who might you have become?
These moments highlight a deep truth about the nature of identity and who we are as humans:
When it comes to your identity, you will never find yourself.
You were not created with a fixed, essential self that was going to emerge in you no matter what. You do not have some kind of hidden core identity that you simply need to discover, unwrap and present to the world.
You are instead an unfinished work in progress … a constant becoming.
Let me explain.
You Are Not Who You Were
As I have journeyed alongside young adults through their defining decade, a phrase I commonly encounter is that they are in the process of ‘finding themselves’ or ‘discovering’ who they really are. While I quite understand and can affirm the sentiment they are expressing the reality is, that when it comes to identity, you never actually find yourself. Or to put it another way, finding yourself is not the way in which you will ever attain a stable and constructive identity.
Take a moment to consider the following with me:
Take everything that you know about yourself – your talents, traits, personality, disposition, clothing preferences, taste in music, preferred foods, education, vocational aspirations, hopes and dreams – package all that up, and place it in a child growing up in a completely different context to yours:
Did you grow up in the majority or minority world? Middle, upper or lower class? Blue collar or white collar? Intact or blended family? Urban, suburban or rural setting? Stable or unstable political environment?
Change some or all of these contexts and imagine yourself growing up in this new setting. Do you think you would still be the same person you are today?
My point here is not to privilege one setting over another, but to highlight the myriad of shaping forces that surround us. How different would I be if I was first born in my family instead of third? If I had to spend every day foraging for food as a child instead of enjoying a warm meal every night around a dinner table? If my world was torn apart by war instead of relatively stable?
Creation is not Destiny
While we might never actually say it this way, a popular notion of identity is that it is a ‘thing’ that resides inside us waiting to be found. Theologically, this gets bound up in the notion of having a soul and being created by God with a purpose and a plan for our lives. It’s like we see ourselves as arriving in the world as a complete package of talents, abilities and characteristics, albeit that these are initially hidden from us. Our task, then, is to figure out what these camouflaged facets of ourselves are, what God’s defining will and purpose is for our lives, and once these things are discovered, to get on with it.
During adolescence, the question asking becomes intensified as virtually every experience, event, moment and relationship becomes a site for asking that fatal question, ‘Is this who I am?’. We may even become a little more proactive and take various personality and career tests, probing our inner-selves and wondering what lies beneath the surface of our skin. Am in an introvert or an extrovert? Am I an engineer or a business person? Am I sporty or an indoors type? In certain corners of Christianity, you may have taken a ‘gift assessment’ where you consider yourself against an inventory of ‘spiritual gifts’ that God may have bestowed upon you.
Is our human task to: 1) figure God’s defining will and purpose is for our lives; 2) the hidden capabilities He has given us to achieve this; and 3) once these things are discovered, to get on with it?
The science of identity, however, teaches us that our identity is not, in fact, something that resides inside us waiting to be discovered. You do not arrive on this earth pre-programmed and ready to go. Equally, theologians have been revisiting what it means to be created and empowered by the Spirit and reconsidering that this also might be far more fluid and interactive than first thought.
The Big 3 of Identity: Nature, Nurture, Choice
From a scientific perspective, identity is not given but co-constructed. That is to say, your identity is a constantly evolving, more or less stable perception of yourself resulting from the interplay of your origins, the shaping forces of your cultural-psycho-social setting AND your free will agency to choose and make decisions within this setting. To put it more simply, who you are is made up of 1-part nature, 1-part nurture and 1-part choice.
I have to admit that when I first began to understand these realities about identity I found it quite unnerving. I much preferred the idea that there was an essential me; that I have enduring qualities that are simply the part of the way I am; that in the context of relationships I am sharing who I am and discovering who this other person is; and that there is a me that will continue no matter what circumstances might emerge in the future, in this world or the next.
Psychology understands your identity to be a constantly evolving, more or less stable perception of yourself resulting from the interplay of your origins, the shaping forces of your cultural-psycho-social setting AND your free will agency to choose and make decisions within this setting.
Yet, the more I was willing to recognise these three dimensions to identity and sit with the uncertainty of being, the more I began to recognise the promise and power of these realities:
- Your origins do not define you: if you have a genetic family tree containing the twisted roots of trauma, addiction and brokenness, these do not determine your essential self (even biological science and the study of epigenetics has shown that genes are far more fluid and changeable than we ever imagined). Neither does coming from a Christian home ensure your faith or a successful home ensure your financial future.
- You are not defined by what has happened to you: the story of your experiences, achievements and failures equally does not stipulate who you are. These events are like threads woven through the garment of your life – they provide the cloth with colour and texture but do not determine what form this cloth will finally take.
- There is always more to who you are: you are are an inexhaustible mystery and an insatiable bundle of potential! You get to spend ALL of your life (not just your adolescence) shaping and crafting who you are in the presence of others who are doing the same.
Being Faithful to IAM and Who I Am
Theologically this shift recognises that we do not, in fact, HAVE a soul, but ARE soul.
To think of ourselves as HAVEing a soul is to return to the idea of being fixed and predetermined. To BE a soul is to recognise the capacity God has given us to be his created co-creators, to participate alongside the great IAM to co-construct who I am. And while some might be concerned that this overbalances into a kind of over-enlightened humanism, to me it seems more like a faithful stewardship of God’s image that we bare; a refusal to abdicate responsibility for our conduct, and an unflinching courage to become more human rather than slide into fatalism.
Stepping Through the Sliding Door @ NEXT
As we enter the second semester of NEXT, our courageous students are embarking on a new leg of the journey of refusing to slide into the fatalism of a fixed identity. These fantastic young people don’t want to be defined by their genetics, determined by their past, nor want to relinquish responsibility for their future. In the coming months, they are engaging in a challenging process of making active decisions about who they want to become and how they want to respond to circumstances in which they find themselves, and the faith which they seek to express.
At NEXT we have stepped out this process, and broken it down into recognisable stages so that we don’t just exhort our young people to choose their identity, but actually step them through the process. And in each case, we don’t have a predetermined idea of who they should become, but rather help them to access the resources of their faith and their community in order to do their personal work.
Because we understand identity to be fluid and not fixed, it is our intention to equip our young people, so that when ‘sliding door’ moments happen again and again and again in their lives, they will remember this process, and be able to step through their chosen door with confidence knowing that they have done it before.
In this series of NEXT Blog Posts we are exploring Identity and Young Adulthood. We have already discussed the ways in which our 20s are such an incredibly defining decade. In this post, we are exploring the unhelpful myths surrounding identity. In coming posts we will explore the ways in which we can construct a stable and positive identity and its relationship to a spiritual identity.
NEXT is specialised program for young adults that help you to ask questions of purpose, meaning and faith even whilst you are living them. Part-time or full-time study. One year of your life so you can focus up the rest. Fully accredited towards a diploma or degree. You can find out more about it all right HERE.