taped to my bathroom mirror so that i see it every morning is a small, two by four inch sheet of lined notebook paper. its top edge is frayed from being torn out of a notebook, and on it is a handwritten bulleted list in black ballpoint ink:
- child of God
- everything else
like i said, it’s a bulleted list. but the order is important.
who am i?
i recently gave a sermon on a passage from matthew’s gospel, from the scene when Jesus asks His followers, “but who do you say that I am?”
i asked the largely gray-haired congregation sprinkled across the three orderly rows of pews why they thought Jesus would ask such a question.
‘do you think this is an insecure 30-something struggling with existential questions of his identity?’ i asked.
the question was rhetorical, of course, but it was also meant as a reminder of the obsessive nature of such questioning. particularly among those of my generation, and the generation coming up behind me
it was meant as a reminder of the fact that many of us often look to other people to tell us who we are.
“you are not the moon kissing the black sky,” someone wrote in a letter that was floating around online a while back.
and i love that line. in fact, i love the entire piece. but mostly, i love this bit at the end:
‘you’ve got to stop asking everyone for their opinions… love yourself, kiddo. you’ve got to love yourself.’
i love this line for the same reason i taped this sheet of notebook paper with the bulleted list to my mirror: because i am that thirty-something (just turned, thank you) struggling with existential questions of identity. wondering who i am, and hoping someone might be able to tell me.
“that is horrible,” a friend of mine said with a laugh from his seat beside me in my favorite local coffee shop. “everything about that is terrible.”
i had just recounted to him a dream i had had the night before. a dream that was still fresh on my mind as we sat together early on this morning over hot coffee and oven-warmed muffins.
i had shared about how, in this dream, i was standing in a long, snaking line of recent graduates, all waiting their turn to speak to someone seated behind a desk. a mysterious figure who i could not pick out from my spot in the line.
i told my friend about how when i finally made it to the desk, i was greeted by the principal from my former college in oxford.
“so, what are you doing with your degree?” was his question for me. innocent enough, except for the fact that its stung stuck with me long after i awoke.
and i think the reason this question stung is because i felt like, in many ways, the emptiness of my response somehow reflected an emptiness inside myself.
in this dream, just as in so many conversations i have had in the past few months, i confessed that i was still looking for full-time work. and each time this confession made me feel as though i had to apologize.
in a culture where the first question asked in most conversations is, “so, what do you do?” it is easy to think our work defines us. it is easy to think that by telling you what i do to earn a paycheck, i am somehow telling you who i am, or what i am worth, as a person.
“well, i am working on wrapping up my first book,” i confessed to my old principal in this dream. “and i’ve been doing some consulting work. but i’m still looking for what’s next. still having conversations and praying. still applying.”
a knowing smile spread across his face. an attempt at reassurance. and then i woke up. feeling empty, somehow.
if i tell you i make my money by lining up words end-to-end and trying to make them dance, you will know something about me. or if i tell you i spend my time wrestling with other people’s words like disheveled, excited children in a school pageant until they’re finally in just the right formation, you will know a bit about who i am.
of course, this would hardly tell you all you need to know about me. or even the most important thing about who i am.
what’s worse, if this is how i think of myself, it will only be a matter of time before who i am comes crumbling down and i am left trying to put the pieces back together.
when we find our identity in our work, it is guaranteed that we will all of us face an existential crisis sooner or later.
when we’re laid off. when we make a job change. when we’re certain God is leading us down a different road than we could have ever imagined, away from the dream job we thought certain to bring us the kind of security we spent our entire childhood longing for.
if we continue to think that our endless, “so, what do you do?” greeting-of-a-question is the best, or even an appropriate, way to identify ourselves, the day will come for all of us when we’re left wondering, who am i? who in the world am i?
“pepsi, please,” i tell the waitress staring with a confused face at my grandfather. “he’d like a pepsi.”
it was a year or so ago that my grandfather–a man who has had as much of an impact on my life as anyone i know–was diagnosed with parkinson’s disease.
since that time, our family has watched helplessly, like drivers passing by a wreck on the side of the road, as his body gives up on him.
this man who taught me how to swim, who used to pull me on an old cement truck chute across the concrete slab behind his house, now struggles to walk. struggles to speak loud enough for others to hear him.
and now i am the one pulling him in his seated walker from his house to the car, and from the car to our table in the restaurant where this waitress smiles at me and leaves with our orders in hand.
my grandfather stares blankly as she leaves, wondering, perhaps, what has happened. wondering where his voice has gone. anguishing over the fact that his legs now refuse to cooperate more often than they comply.
“i am so tired of this,” he confesses to me in his most candid moments. after he has fallen, again. for the tenth time that day. or more. his bruised knees striking the ground with a sickening thud. like the sound of a milk jug falling from the fridge on a linoleum floor.
we can no longer do the things we used to do together. working on the projects around the house like we used to. he now sits in his motor scooter while i mow the yard. or watches as i use the skilsaw to cut a board, like he taught me long ago.
things no longer look as they once did for my grandpa, for this man who grew up in the dustbowl era, and who used to work around the clock in a physically demanding job to make sure his family always had food on the table.
but it’d be silly to say he’s no longer my grandfather. he is, of course. his body may be failing him, more and more quickly by the day, but he’s still my grandfather.
soon, even i will be unable to make out his words. soon, his mobility will be completely gone. but even then, even when his body has all but given up, he will still be the same man who helped raise me.
because that’s who he is.
as one writer recently put it, “as the body and mind deteriorate, [people] are not less themselves.”
the truth is, all our bodies are deteriorating and failing us more and more by the moment. all of us are getting older. and the promise of youth so revered by our culture is passing through all of our fingers like sand.
which means we’re all in great danger if we locate our identity solely in this flesh and bone package we’ve been given.
in his now-famous address to future graduates of kenyon college, the writer david foster wallace warned his young audience of the dangers of placing their identity in their bodies (especially for those particularly good-looking folks among us):
“Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
to place your identity in your body, wallace insists, is to bury yourself long before the undertaker ever arrives on the scene. because none of us can ever be properly defined solely by our body.
in some ways, of course, i am my body. who i am is very much shaped by my body.
may God forgive me, for example, if i ever ignore the privilege afforded me by way of my maleness. and my whiteness. those are real. they cannot be ignored.
and yet, who i am is not reducible to “white male.” i am both of those things, sure. but i am also more than those things.
nor am i to think that i am somehow no longer me when my hairline makes its embarrassingly premature retreat backward across my forehead. or when my waistline begins to resemble the spare tire in the trunk of my car.
who i am is somehow located beyond all of that. just as my grandfather is somehow more than his failing limbs and crippled speech.
“we are our stories,” a jewish writer recently suggested, reflecting on the palestine-israel conflict.
and i thought that was fascinating and intriguing and challenging, all at the same time. i thought there was something true in that sentence.
but the more i chewed on this line, the more i began to realize i had some serious hesitation with thinking who we are is somehow located in our stories.
i was talking with an editor friend not long ago, who happened to be proofreading my book manuscript for me at the time, and i was talking about memoir and sharing our stories and what i think that means for our identity.
“it’s a funny feeling,” i confessed to her, “the fact that, in a few months, perfect strangers will be able to pay a few bucks and read some of my most intimate secrets, stories from my childhood that even my closest friends have never known about me.”
my editor friend nodded a thoughtful nod, her brow lowered and furrowed. her eyes narrowed to slits.
“and i guess the conclusion i’ve come to is that, strangers can know these stories about me, and still not know me. they’ll still be strangers.
“if you think about it, it’s a bit like us and God, right? i mean, you can know things about God, and still have no relationship with God.”
what i was trying to communicate to this editor friend of mine is that our stories shape us, of course. in undeniable ways. and knowing those stories allows others to know things about us.
if i tell you a story about growing up in one of only a handful of single-parent families in a small farm town where dairy cows outnumber people 10 to one, you will know something about who i am. if i tell you a story about what it was like growing up as the oldest child in said family, you will know a bit more.
but this does not mean that i am somehow reducible to my stories.
you will never fully know me even if you know all my stories. because i am a person, not a story to hear and to somehow possess in its hearing.
what defines us
at any given moment, there are countless stories being told, whispering to us that this is what defines us. that this is what shapes who we are. things that have no right whatsoever to determine who we are. and which will, if we let them, if we allow ourselves to live into their narratives and define who we are, eat us alive.
there are narratives being told that tell us who we are is determined by something as banal and arbitrary as the make of car we drive. or the brand and style of clothes we wear.
others want to tell us that who we are is best determined by our particular body shape. or by how much hair we have. or don’t have.
there are long-standing traditions that teach us, from a young age, that the most important thing about is is our last name. our family. or the town where we grew up.
we’re told that who we are is somehow defined by whether we’re attracted to the same sex, or the opposite sex.
we’re told that our identity is somehow determined by our level of education. by the letters behind or name. or by where we go to school.
nearly as old a narrative is the idea that who we are is determined by the size of our paycheck. or where our paycheck comes from. or whether or not we receive a regular paycheck.
these are the stories we’re told all the time. every day. from the moment we wake up to the moment we close our eyes to go to sleep at night. from the time we are old enough to listen to such stories, to the day we’d give anything for someone to listen to our stories.
i no longer wrestle with the question of whether or not the car i drive somehow reflects who i am–i mean, it’s a car–and yet, there are those moments when i need the reminder of who i am.
there are those moments when i need to be reminded that my identity is not something that can be defined by the work i do, by my body, or even by the stories from my life that have doubtlessly shaped me in important ways.
this is who you are
“this is who you are,” the words came in the faint hint of a whisper. “you are Mine.”
i was standing on a ladder at the time. painting a friend’s house back in my old hometown, in the same community where i grew up, after leaving several years before for the kind of elite education i never could have imagined for myself.
in that moment on the other side of grad school where i began to think that this menial work somehow defined me, or that this farm town community where i grew up defined me, the whisper of these words was enough to steal my breath and wet my eyes.
“this is what you,” of all people, “are,” the words whispered.
“you are,” of all things to be, “Mine.”
a simple note
the taped note on the top corner of my bathroom mirror is simple, really. a sheet of lined notebook paper not much bigger than the palm of my hand. but it helps me in ways i struggle to put to words.
- child of God
- everything else
when i start my day, staring into the eyes of the face looking back at me, this note helps remind me who i am. it helps remind me that who i am is something that can never be taken away or commodified or lost with age.
it reminds me that who i am is, instead, somehow interwoven with the story of the world’s beginning. somehow wrapped up and found in all of the world’s greatest stories of coming home.
this note on my mirror reminds me that my identity is something to be received anew every morning, with tears in my eyes. and the kind of rich joy and deep laughter that comes from the kind of good news we struggle to believe when it’s told to us.
like a secret whispered so softly for fear that it might be lost in its telling. like the best joke we’ve ever heard. like the best dream we’ve ever dreamed.