Out, In, or Up
We are a culture obsessed with #identity. There is an unquestioned belief these days that discovering our truest identity and then living it out is the key to happiness. Whereas the boomer generation venerated self-sacrifice, and gen-x’ers exalted self-indulgence, this generation is all about self-expression. Free of the societal limitations of yesteryear, we try out identities like shoes to see which one fits best, and then we spend our lives trying hard to “be ourselves.”
In this post, I want to spend some time discussing all the different paths we travel to figure out who we are, and why almost all of them are a waste of time.
The first direction we travel to find our identity is out. A character in Chuck Palahniuk’s book Invisible Monsters tragically sums up the cry of so many hearts when she says,
“I hate how I don’t feel real enough unless people are watching.”
In our culture, image is everything. We curate our Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. We project the image we think will garner the praise we crave. We measure our worth by the numbers – how many followers, how many likes, how many retweets, how many fans. We treat the people in our lives as either useful or harmful to this image. Instead of using things and loving people, we use people and love things. Gone are the days of pursuing academic subjects, careers, and artistic endeavors for their own reward. Now we pursue them for external validation, which kills any joy we might have received.
All this modern focus on standing out from the crowd, however, cannot tamp down our human need for connection and belonging. Tribes have always been humanity’s method of meeting these needs, but some of us don’t feel like we can be without belonging. This attachment of identity to #tribes is the root of much of the discord in our world today. Political party, religion, education, gender, class, nationality, race – all of these are dead end trails if we are on the hunt for true identity.
To add insult to injury, alongside the illusion that you are only somebody when you have external approval, we have been fed years of the advertising and media mantra, “You are not good enough.” Like blind children desperate to touch and taste and smell the world, if we continue searching for our identity “out there”, we will go through life grasping and groping for confirmation that we are real, that we matter. We will not feel real unless people are watching.
“When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you can do.” Ru Paul
Many of us, fed up with exhausting external searches for identity, confused by contradictory messages, or battered by waves of disapproval, have decided the answer must lie within. We may take time away from the spotlight of social media to do some soul searching. We may read a few books on the subject, spend time pursuing interests just for our own pleasure, even quit our rat race jobs. In the end, we come back to the world with new enlightenment about who we are and proudly proclaim, “I am thus, and I care not what anyone thinks.”
This “people’s approval be damned” attitude seems wise and brave in this world of image-fixation, and it is.* But does a courageous expression of this newfound identity make it real and true? Can we really create an “image of our own imagination” and become that?
#TimKeller gave a wonderful sermon on the topic of identity at Wheaton College in 2015. In it, he discussed several problems with this seemingly astute inward search for identity. You can listen to the whole sermon here, but one of the main reasons he gave is that humans are notoriously unstable and contradictory. From day to day, month to month, year to year (even minute to minute) we are changing and adjusting and shifting. We are not the same people we were five years ago. What makes us think we have the ability to rightly assess who we are and then maintain that identity in all circumstances and settings across time? As the prophet Jeremiah accurately states, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”**
There has to be a third way of identifying who we are that is not based on external validation or internal naval gazing. There must be an identity which will not shift with the seasons of our lives, bend under the weight of social pressure, or shake on the unsteady foundation of job titles, physical health, relationships, or any other experience.
“Only if your identity is built on God and his love can you have a self that can venture anything, face anything.” –Tim Keller
The only sure way to know and be who you are is to allow yourself to be named by the One who created you. In my last post, I mentioned the two names all Christians have received by God – human (a name laden with dignity and humility), and child of God. This received (as opposed to achieved) identity cannot be shaken by the storms of life. It cannot be stripped away by career loss, divorce, bad health, rejection, even death.
Learning to sink your identity roots in God is still a process, but it isn’t so much a path to travel as it is a peeling back, layer by layer of all the things we thought we were to uncover who God truly created us to be.
I want to talk more in my next post about the common identity traps in Christianity and the church, and some I’ve fallen into over the years.
*Ironically, in our culture the harder people push the limits of cultural identity expectation, the more they are affirmed as role models.