Saturday, November 8, 2014

More Thoughts on Identity; or, the Thirties Are Still Weird

"[D]espite having invested so much of ourselves in what we thought would provide a lasting sense of meaning, we hardly know ourselves in the midst of it…And the things that we once looked to for stability and identity begin to feel like burdens and obligations instead of blessings.” --Hannah Anderson

Reading Made for More kicked up some questions that have been naggingly persistent since I hit my 30s. Somehow I'd gotten the idea that once you achieve age 30, most of the "who am I, and what am I here for?" questions magically resolved themselves. Apparently, that is not so. Alas.

I wonder, though, if such questions are partly a function of privilege. Because I grew up under particular expectations, with the freedom to devote my early adulthood to certain pursuits -- i.e. academics, and perhaps more broadly to "finding my niche" vocationally -- I've been afforded the leisure, and the shelter, to think about these things. Arguably too much. And having spent my 20s that way -- dreaming vaguely of becoming a writer, then navigating the endless stream of applications, exams, and other qualifying events to prove myself worthy of being called a scholar -- it's little surprise that it's taken years to realize that those things aren't me. That they might be part of the work to which I'm called, but they are not where my real identity and worth reside. And then to wonder where, and who, is the "self" underneath all that. What does it really mean to find an identity apart from those things?

Whatever their source, the questions assume greater urgency when the things I've invested myself in reveal themselves to be unstable and not life-giving in and of themselves. When writing loses the joyful savor it held through all my growing-up years, and there is no promise I will ever get that back again. Or when I hit the first major academic crisis of the past two decades, and realize I've come so far only to question whether college teaching is truly my work. No matter how diligently I've resisted being one of "those" grad students whose studies consume their life, is it any wonder I've emerged with a shaken sense of self? And I don't think I'm alone.

At moments like these, hearing that my true identity is found in Christ does feel like a hollow platitude. I know that it's truth. I don't want to feel disappointed by that exhortation; believe me. But it doesn't necessarily help me understand how that truth works itself out in me. Maybe it says too much too soon, kind of like promising a grieving friend that God is in control, in a way that only tends to underscore His seeming absence.

One thing that bugged me about Hannah Anderson's book, yet also encouraged me, was that she doesn't try to answer the "yes, buts" in a definitive way. Coming from her, though, the "identity in Christ" refrain doesn't fall as flat. Her understanding seems to be both more mundane and more expansive. As long as we are fulfilling the tasks of reflecting God's image -- living in close communion with Him, being in relationship with other people, and participating in the stewardship of God's creation in some way -- all these things done through Christ by the power of the indwelling Spirit -- then we ARE living out our "true identity." Because we are made in His image, we have the freedom to live out that identity in any way that faithfully represents His character. That is liberating news to hear. It lifts some of the burden of, "But I didn't achieve X by age 30; therefore I'm a failure," or "That other person does Y and Z so well; why can't I?" (Or the far uglier versions that too often inhabit my mind.)

On the other hand, it's also a bit terrifying. When you've spent most of your life working to establish yourself on the approval of others, more or less following their scripts for what counts as success, the prospect of living differently can feel crushing. Coming to know yourself as Known -- created to be such -- is hard, humbling work. It can feel like inching along a cliff in the semidarkness, unable to discern how far the drop might be, or whether there's a safety net. (Oddly, clinging to my well-worn, familiar supports, those incomplete versions of "me" I've worked so hard to construct and maintain, doesn't make me feel as secure as I thought they would.)

It is good to remember that He is kind, and more patient than I am. And the things He makes reflect His beauty, which is more solid and abiding and glorious than we can imagine.

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