The story is told of a couple of lads who come out of a pub one night having had a bit too much to drink. As they staggered down the road trying to find their way home, they came across a very smart, uniformed, naval officer. Seeing his opportunity for some assistance, one of the lads asked, ‘Oi, mate, do you know where we are?’. Somewhat offended by their rather over-friendly approach, he looked down his nose at them and asked ‘Do you know who I am?’
At this the lad turned to his mate and exclaimed ‘Now we are really in trouble. We don’t know where we are, and he doesn’t know who he is!’
Have you ever wondered ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What makes me, me?’ The way we answer that question usually depends on the culture we live in.
Non-western cultures (and previous generations in the West as well) would have suggested that the answer to that question is external to ourselves. We need to look out and listen to who society tells us we are. In such a culture our identity is something given to us by our family and society.
A good example of this from my own country are the names that people have. Why are some people called ‘Cook’ or ‘Smith’ or ‘Baker’ and so on? Clearly, at some point these names were descriptive of the family profession. In such a society a certain set of expectations were placed upon you from birth. Your vocation and other life choices were given to you.
There are some benefits to such a way of doing things. Life was much simpler, and in some vocations, passing skills down through the generations can be highly beneficial. But it is also very restrictive. What if I don’t want to be who I have been told to be? What if my own personality, desires and natural abilities don’t fit the expectations laid upon me?
Today in the West most people would answer the question ‘Who am I?’ in a very different way. Instead of looking out to see what other people say, we are encouraged to look in and find the answer in our own desires and feelings. Our identity is not something given to us but something we can choose. We feel that we are free to create our own identity, and that no one else should be able to tell us who we are.
In some ways this is a very liberating mindset. We are no longer restricted by cultural expectations and stereotypes. For instance, when people first discover my wife works for an airline many assume she is cabin crew and are very surprised to discover she is actually a pilot. (Passengers have been known to ask her for drinks as she walks to the flight deck!). It is great that her career hasn’t been limited by those expectations and that she has been free to pursue and achieve her childhood dream.
However, is it really true that I can whoever I want to be? When I was a child, I discovered I was flat footed and needed special insoles in my shoes. The main result was that I wasn’t very good at running. Therefore, no matter how much I might have desired to be an Olympic 100 metre champion, that dream was never going to be realised. The limitations of our own physicality will at least in part determine who we are (and aren’t).
We also need to consider whether it is wise to not listen to others, and only consider our inner, subjective sense of self? Couldn’t others help us discover who are and what we are good at (or not)? Imagine for instance that I decide that I am going to be a great comedian. The only issue is that no one ever finds me funny? How do I respond? I could try ignoring them and pressing on with my career. I could try – but I’d probably be telling jokes only to myself before long. And this goes much farther than simply career choices. We are constantly refining our sense of identity based on the reaction of others.
We should also ask whether we are really as free as we think we are? We laugh at previous generations and their conformity to a set of societal expectations. But are we really free today or are we just conforming to a different set of expectations? Just look at what happens when people question some of those expectations on social media. We’re not as free as we think we are.
Both looking out to society and looking in to our desires can have some value in helping us find out who we really are. But what if our identity was not simply something given to us (from outside) or something we chose for ourselves (from within) but rather something to be discovered.
One ancient Hebrew poet expressed it this way when he wrote: ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’. The poet didn’t view himself simply as the result of biology and sociology, but as the creation of a loving God.
If this were true then it would mean that we have a value and significance inherent in who are, and not just because of what we do. We are after all human beings not human doings! In fact the Christian faith says that God loves and values us, but that love and value is not based on what we do, it’s actually in spite of what we do! He is a God who loves us in spite of our brokenness and failings and is willing to forgive us (at great cost).
If we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ it also would mean your uniqueness is not simply the result of chance but of design. Could it be that God has created you with a unique combination of abilities, desires and interests? If this is the case then maybe our identity is not something we chose but rather something to be discovered? The joy of the Christian life is that I don’t have to discover it by myself, or even just with the help of those around me. We can get to know in a personal way the God who created us. In relationship with him we can discover who he created us to be and how we can use that to make a difference in this world.