"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." - VoltairE

Identity - we are so much more

Posted by Anne Witton on Monday, February 2, 2015 Under: Ministry


Last Thursday I had the opportunity to speak at our weekly Hub on the topic of identity, so I thought I'd share some of the things that I spoke about.

Who are we?

How do we answer the question Who are we?

Oscar Wilde once said “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”. But what does ‘being yourself’ mean?

On the one hand, there’s our official identity - the facts about us that appear on our passport or that we’re required to fill in on forms. That might include age, sex, religion and ethnicity which we might feel are important aspects of who we are. But there are other things that we may feel shape our identity such as our family background and relationships, what we do, what we own, how much we earn, what we’ve achieved, our marital status, where we live, our sexual identity or even what football team we support, what bands we like and our hobbies.

We all have things that matter to us and that we’d like to project to the world. It’s interesting to see how people use social media profiles to present a public version of themselves. There’s a very real sense in which we can choose how we want to portray ourselves to the world.

It’s also interesting to see how keen people are to explore their personalities and preferences with online quizzes. I confess to getting distracted with Buzzfeed quizzes sometimes. These are all genuine examples that I’ve seen on Facebook:

  • Which cartoon dinosaur are you?
  • What kind of garbage are you?
  • Which letter from the title of ‘Frozen’ are you?
The advertising industry is quick to tap into our exploration of who we are. Gone are the days when they could just tell you that a product worked and was reasonably priced. Now clever marketing will try and get us to align our identity with a particular product or brand and adopt the brand’s values as our own. I don’t know if anyone remembers the Nikon adverts with  series of aspirational ‘I am’ statements like ‘I am creative’ ending in ‘I am a Nikon’.

But whilst we have a ‘public identity’ that we may be happy to explore openly, there’s also our private identities. The things which get to the very core of who we are. In a sense, I think that working this out is a life-long process and we’ll all be at different stages. University can be a great opportunity to explore your identity and a group like this is a great way to challenge ourselves to ask the big questions in life and try and work out what we think.

There may well be aspects of our identity - whether it’s concerning our relationships, spiritual life, background or experiences - that we’ve never shared with anyone else, perhaps because we’re afraid of being rejected. There’s a real risk in being vulnerable with others and allowing them to see the ‘real us’. But I think most of us have an underlying longing to be known and be accepted for who we are.

My story

Identity has always been a big issue for me and something that I’ve grappled with at various points in my life, so I thought it might be helpful to share a few personal experiences. From an early age I’ve been aware of same sex attraction and this led to feelings of rejection and isolation when I was younger. I was brought up going to a very traditional church and I thought that being a Christian just meant going to church once a week and being good. I thought that I would be rejected by Christians and by God if I was open about being gay.

I saw university as a chance to make a new life for myself and explore my identity. I joined the LGBT society and it was comforting to be with a group of people who knew what it felt like to grow up as an outsider and who loved and accepted me just as I was. But I did feel uncomfortable with labelling myself according to my sexual orientation as I felt there was so much more to me than that.

At the same time I also met some Christians who had a living and active faith and I realised that I didn’t have the same faith as them. I used to call myself a Christian because I’m British and sang hymns at school, but I didn’t really get what it was all about. So I started to explore what it means to follow Jesus. In my first year at uni I became a Christian myself and I can tell you more about that afterwards if you’re interested.

I’ve found that God is gracious, kind and compassionate and accepts me as I am in spite of knowing all my darkest secrets. He has won my heart with his love and I now know that my identity is as a precious daughter of my heavenly father. Although it’s meant choosing to be single, I find great comfort in being loved and accepted and I don’t need to prove myself any more. My identity in Christ can’t be taken away no matter how my circumstances change and that brings a real freedom, sense of security and purpose.

I love this quote from the priest and writer Henri Nouwen “Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God.”

Does our identity change?

It seems that there are lots of things that make us who we are, some of which are unchanging and some of which are more fluid depending on circumstances.

One of the big questions is what happens when the things that make up our identity are taken away?

I was very inspired by the story of Martine Wright who lost both legs in 2005 London bombings.

This is how one of the newspapers reported her story:
“Her journey that day caused her to lose not only both legs and 80% of her blood but her life as she knew it. After the physical and mental agony of rehabilitation and learning to walk on prosthetics, she quit her job, fought for a public inquiry into 7/7, earned her pilot's licence in South Africa, married her husband, Nick, and gave birth.
Then she became a Paralympian.”

Not everyone responds like that when their world is shattered and the things that they’ve found their identity in are taken away. You may know people who have struggled to find their identity after being made redundant, or after a relationship has broken down. Or you may be wrestling with finding your place in an unfamiliar culture at university, especially if you’re away from home for the first time, or in new friendship groups and with new and different expectations. It can be unsettling and scary to work out who you are when much of the familiar structure of your life is stripped away. And you may be thinking about what to do after university as the future stretches out before you and there are so many possibilities for who you might become.

So is there something that is uniquely ‘us’ that we can hold onto in spite of changing circumstances? Are we defined by our past or by things that have happened to us? Is our life the sum total of our preferences, achievements and experiences or are we more than that?

Here’s a quote to think about from the novel Fight Club:

“You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.”

Questions for discussion

  • How do we express our identity? (Through what we wear, who we associate with, how we speak etc.)
  • How much control do you think we have in shaping our own identities?
  • Is there anything about our identity that is unchanging?
  • Do you agree with the quote from Fight Club “You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.”?
  • How do we respond when the things that are an important part of our identity are shaken? (Eg. If we fail at something we’re good at, or we lose someone close)

In : Ministry 


Tags: identity hub 
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