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How do I know who I am?
January 28, 2022
If relying on what society tells us matters most is stifling and oppressive and relying on ourselves is circular and indulgent, where can we turn to understand our true identity?
Everybody needs a sense of Self. We need a sense of identity that is stable and enduring across the various roles we play and the spheres in which we live. We need a core understanding of who we are that doesn’t change. And we also need to know that our identity matters—that our Self has worth. But how do we do that? How do I know who I am? And how do I know that I am valuable?
As contemporary people, we believe that in order to gain a sense of Self, you have to be true to whatever lies within you. You have to be free to create a life for yourself—independent of others—based on whatever you sense matters most.
But notice, that’s a very different way of conceiving of the Self compared to the past. In earlier times, you gained a sense of Self by seeing that you were part of a larger order. You knew who you were by connecting to others and fulfilling your responsibilities—to your family, your tribe, your people, whatever.
But today people feel valuable not by sacrificing themselves for the good of others, but by expressing whatever lies within. What makes you, YOU, is your individual dreams and desires. You have to decide who you will be, and you must bestow value upon yourself—regardless of what anyone else thinks. So rather than connecting with others outside of you, you have to connect with something deep inside you.
What should we make of this? On the one hand, the individualism of modern times emerged for a reason. In the past, people were often locked into a given place, role or station and could never break out. Pre-modern cultures were rigid and highly stratified. If your father was a butcher or a baker, but you wanted to be a candlestick maker—too bad! And if you didn’t fit the mold, you were likely ostracized. We certainly don’t want to go back to an earlier, more oppressive age. We should be able to determine the shape of our lives in ways that our ancestors could have never imagined.
But on the other hand, there is a shadow side to modern individualism. Left unchecked, it can lead you to become less concerned with others. In its worst forms, it can lead to a kind of self-indulgent narcissism.
But here’s the real problem. If you decide to base your identity on being true to the inner depths of who you really are, how do you determine what things inside you are most important? Our desires are constantly shifting and often in tension with one another. Many of them are substantial and weighty, others are trivial and inconsequential. How do you determine which ones matter most?
This is why we can never escape the need for something or someone outside of ourselves to tell us what is significant. We are always living before some kind of audience; the only question is: Which one? It is not enough to say: I want to be creative, or beautiful or accomplished. THEY have to think so—whoever “they” may be.
Christianity offers an intriguing solution to this conundrum. Rather than encouraging us to look OUT to others, or IN to ourselves, it tells us to look UP to God to discover who we are. Relying on what society tells you matters most can become stifling and oppressive. Relying on yourself can become circular and indulgent. But relying on God is freeing.
Jesus famously said that the way to find your Self is to lose your Self. When you stop trying to create an identity for yourself and put your faith in Jesus, his values and priorities become your own. That’s how you determine what matters most in life. That’s how you discover who you are truly meant to be. And that’s how you know that you are valuable. You can never question your worth because you matter to God, so much so that Jesus was willing to give his life for you. Your life is of infinite value to him.