An Awakening of Self
August 2017, Week Four (Identity)
This article will be different from the previous weeks as I will not be concentrating as much on an academic breakdown of identity and subsequent practical applications. Rather, in this article, I will be focusing on my own identity and how it has developed.
The following contains excerpts from my own personal writings. I do not share it to create discomfort or start political, religious or other debates and criticisms. It is merely a reflection on what my own experience has been as I have tried to answer the question I have asked myself since I was a child. Cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore, I am.” I read the phrase in a children’s book and did not learn until much later that it is a well-known philosophical saying from Rene Descartes.
All I knew was I think, therefore apparently, I am. But then, who am I?
My Identity Problem
At around the age of fifteen, I decided the teachings of Christ were worth seriously following. Though I had and have many doctrinal, theological and philosophical questions about Christianity and how Christians apply those teachings, I believe in God. I believe Christ is the Son of God, I believe Christ lived and died for our redemption and then rose from the dead. I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is here on Earth and available to us through the Spirit of God. Finally, I believe our purpose in life is to reflect the will of God, a will inseparable from justice and love. (I may have lost some of you right there. I encourage you to reach out to me and respectfully challenge the beliefs I hold. I readily admit probably not having satisfying answers but I find respectful dialogue to be a healthy and necessary element of any good society.)
Up until that time, I had always had a fairly clear plan for the direction in which my life would go. I had five-year plans, ten-year plans and retirement plans. Since I made the decision to try to seriously follow the teachings of my faith, it has been a constant struggle to know what I should be doing with my life. This struggle was especially true in deciding on a career. Success (as defined by the culture I was surrounded by) seemed shallow, trite, too easily attainable.
Work, make money, get promoted, make more money, buy a house, have a family, go to church once a week, work some more, make more money, have kids, work, buy a bigger house, work, retire, die.
To further the problem, I was unable to separate my own self-worth from my career. I.e. If my career was taken from me, then I had no value to the world. For years, I tried balancing being successful by culture’s definition with trying to sincerely follow my faith’s teachings. It took over fifteen years for me to fully realize how incompatible those two viewpoints are.
Approximately three years ago, I left a promising career in social work to become a stay-at-home parent. The decision was the right one but I struggled greatly in the transition.
My entire identity had been defined by what I did for work.
It was how I described myself when meeting new people. It was how I described my successes my life. It was how I convinced myself I was following well the ethos of faith I adhered to.
For almost the entire first year I was a stay-at-home parent, I was lost, frustrated and angry. I am sure it would have been much longer if not for several interrelated events that occurred roughly two years ago. (One of which was I began practicing prayerful mindfulness.)
A Small Step
One day I got my daughter to nap without her needing to be held the whole time. She has never been a great sleeper and she was easily woken from her naps unless I rocked her the whole time. While admittedly, this was a great way to binge watch The Wire (Season 4 was my favorite!) and Narcos, I eventually ran out of shows to watch and the house needed picked up anyway.
Getting her to sleep on her own gave me a feeling of success to a degree I had not felt before.
It seemed ridiculous but I could not then and cannot now deny how accomplished I felt in that moment. I cannot adequately explain why that moment was such a turning point for how I viewed my own personal success and what actually matters in life.
But, best I can say is being a stay-at-home parent made my world incredibly small. My world for most of the day was my children and me. There was no one there to evaluate my approach or reward me for a job well done.
Going into being a stay-at-home parent I had worked for years in social work and had quite a bit of knowledge about child development. But, my children did not care about my accolades, the data points that showed I was good at my job or the school grades that showed my aptitude for the jobs I had held. They only cared that I was present with them and provided them opportunities for their needs to be met. My success was their positive development and my reward was their happiness.
In a sense, my children forced me to define myself outside of what I have accomplished. To paraphrase Dag Hammarskold in his incredibly insightful book Markings, I had to turn inward to discover myself. It was uncomfortable to say the least. I realized I had let the fickleness of culture and the free market economy define my identity.
My identity consisted of what I contributed to the world and how well I made that contribution.
My value was determined by how much culture monetarily valued my contributions at any given time.
I won’t argue the inherent goodness or badness of that system but I will make the point that stepping outside that system gave me a deeper and more meaningful perspective on how I feel we should value others. Further, my identity was defined by the context of the situation I was in. Even though inwardly there was little change in me when I moved from working outside the home to working inside the home, how people viewed me changed drastically.
My children taught me something incredibly important. Regardless of how good or bad I was as a parent, my children still loved me. They still wanted me to be their father. Regardless of the context of the situation we were in, they always saw me as their dad. The grace they modeled to me as I went through that transition period led me to profoundly re-consider the costly grace I had been given according to the faith I had followed since childhood.
A Big Change
In my mid-twenties, I began to fall away from the faith of my adolescence. That is not to say I stopped believing in God but only that I found the religious systems I was a part of to be inadequate, intolerant, and often corruptible. I went through disillusionment and frustration as I allowed these systems to define my identity as well. Eventually, my frustration, disappointment and disillusionment came to a head.
A couple years ago, I said a simple, desperate prayer.
I told God I was done.
I would seek Him one last time but I was tired of going through the motions of faith to appease others. If no change occurred then I would no longer adhere to the Christian faith.
In reflecting on that moment, I think my prayer was less a demand of God and more a confession of my own failings as I had for years tried to define myself through everything but God and the faith I follow. I am often embarrassed and outraged by the ways in which the teachings of Jesus are used to justify and promote intolerance, inequality and hate.
As I prayed, I realized something. How God viewed me has never changed.
My identity was, is and ever will be a child of God.
No one can take that from me just as I cannot take that from anyone else. I have felt such peace within me in the years since. Where I was once anxious and overwhelmed, I generally feel at ease and confident. It is quite odd to be honest. This is not to say life is perfect and I never have a struggle. It’s not and I do. But, I bounce back quicker than I used to.
My identity is no longer built on the shifting sands of culture but rather the unchanging foundation of knowing who I am and the value I inherently have and share with the rest of the human race.
What is the root of your identity? Do you struggle to equate your identity with what you do, what others say about you, or what you have? If so, Henri Nouwen speaks powerfully to those of us who find our identity in these things in this 17 minute video.
As always, please feel free to share your story, thoughts, or questions below in the comments!
In our August series, we have been discussing the areas of emphasis of Raising Up Dads. We have discussed children, community and health. The fourth and final area is identity. Moving forward after this article, we will discuss in greater depth, sub-topics within each of the four areas of focus. Each discussion will last one month. The discussion will consist of one longer article published at the beginning of the month and several shorter articles published throughout the month. For September, the area of emphasis will be Children with a specific focus on Early Childhood.
Thank you for reading and we hope you continue to join us and be a part of the Raising Up Dads community!