Identity

Sometime recently, I managed to forget who I am.

This is kind of disconcerting. Loss of identity sound like madness, like something that sends people to mental hospitals. Maybe if I forgot I was human, or lost touch with reality, I would be insane. I answer to my own name. I fulfill the responsibilities that go along with my life. But somewhere along the way, I lost my grip on “me”.

It happens sometimes. When life gets hard, we do what we can to cope with it. One option is to just be who other people think we are, or what they need. I could be an employee. I could be a friend. I could be a daughter. I could be a neighbor. I could be a soprano. I could be a roommate. But none of these is me.

There are so many things that make up a life. There are jobs and education, there’s religion and upbringing, there are talents and skills and locations and languages and memories. There are gestures and convictions, preferences, loves, hates, affinities, and a million million thoughts. Any of these may make up a person. I felt like huge swaths of my life had gotten lost in the mix, that I’d forgotten where my skills and talents and desires and preferences lie. I’m recovering some of them.

I like things that have wood grain: it’s everywhere in my house. I like funky lamps. My new bedroom curtains are purple. I listen to Newsboys and They Might Be Giants and Bach. I like to sit with one foot curled under me. I like to draw, and do calligraphy, and figure things out, and take things apart, and fix things, and read stuff, and smell flowers, and drink tea, and play piano, and sing.

That’s a bit of me. Those are reflections, or aspects, or facets, or pieces. I’m glad to find them again. I’m grateful for them, as anyone is grateful to see their own face in a mirror, to return to their own house. But they are not me.

Sweep them all away, and what’s left? How am I defined? Were I to lose everything, were I to be locked in my own body, what would be left? My intelligence? My friends and family? My love? When a person loses those, do they lose themselves?

Maybe they do – if those are the things that define them.

We’re such messed-up little creatures, we humans. Our identities change as we grow, sometimes for the better, but not always. We try to change ourselves all the time. We add skills, we subtract vices (or try to), things sneak in when we’re not looking, things grow dusty and fall away. Some things we cut off, some things we foster. There’s plenty about me that can’t change, things written into my DNA and built into the design of my heart and brain and soul. I can’t undo the past, either. But I can change my identity.

We all can. I’m not saying it’s easy or that we should, necessarily. But we choose how we are defined. We may not realize it, we may just anchor ourselves to the nearest object like those sea squirts that attach to the sea floor and promptly devour their own brains. Which would explain why we pick such crazy things.

We pick families. We pick jobs. We pick ethnicities. We pick political parties. We pick sexualities. We pick Myers-Briggs types. We pick diagnoses. We pick neuroses. Sometimes we twine our identities around wrongs done to us, around trauma, around all kinds of negative things. And sure, we’ve got to have something, but most of the time we don’t even realize what that thing is. And in so doing, I wonder if we don’t limit ourselves, making ourselves smaller than we are. Kinda like that sea squirt.

Whatever we choose as the root of our identity has to be big enough, and strong enough, to encompass the whole mess of human existence, the beauty and the ugliness, the heights and the lows. Otherwise we run the risk of having it blown apart or destroyed or lost just when we need it most. I’ve learned I can’t predict how high those heights are, or how low the lows are, nor how wide and crazy the parts in-between are, and thus have no measure for how strong that root has to be.

But I know this: I’m a Christian. I’m a human being made by God, his masterpiece, his daughter, and his beloved. I’m broken and messed up and weak, but I am also gifted and talented and valued beyond price. He is my master and I am his slave — and no one else’s, not even my own. Whoever I am, whatever I am, I am that. Always.

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  • Sarah Izhilzha

    Beautifully said.

    I remember having a similar realization at the end of my unemployed period–I had not only forgotten who I was, I had lost most of who I was. I even wondered if God had never existed. So I sat down and looked into that abyss, to see what–if anything–was left. The only thing there was a longing to see God, whether I thought he existed or not.

    It was enough to go on with, until the rest came back, most of me in new forms I hadn’t imagined before.

  • Mary Birky

    Love this, Andrea. Thanks so much for the wisdom and great reminders.