Monday, April 2, 2012

What Might it Look Like? Identity.

I've worded the title this way, because I think, just maybe, this could be the beginning of a little series... WHAT IT MIGHT LOOK LIKE IF ______  ... but I'm not sure if I have enough ideas.  If it strikes you as something you'd like to contribute to, let me know!  Some guest posts could be a great way to really re-imagine some stuff!

Illusions - Garry Orriss

nb.  Garry is an old friend of mine.  We lost touch years back, but I happen to own a couple of these lithographs, which he gave me way back when...  At the time, I didn't really understand the image - it seemed to me the mask should be blank, and there should be a face beneath - yet this image has it the other way around.  Funny how your perspective changes over the years - now it makes perfect sense!

So... who ARE you?  What are the things that define your identity?  Are you male?  Female?  Gay?  Straight?  Buddhist?  Agnostic?  Christian? Atheist?  (that list could go on forever so I'll stop there)  Are you a single parent?  A Tradie?  A professional?  Are you wealthy?  or... not? Are you creative?  Logical?  Are you black?  white?  Asian?  Shy?  Angry?  Tender-hearted?  Practical?  Intellectual?  I'll let you fill in the blanks!

We all have an idea in our heads, about the kind of person we are.  Where does it come from?  I suppose to a large degree, you could say our identities are socially constructed - we put our ideas about ourselves together from things others say to us, the reactions we get from others...  mixed with our desires and ambitions, and the stories that come to us in the form of our beliefs.  Cultural and family stories...  There are things we've been telling ourselves since we were small - and things we've "discovered" since.  But really, who ARE we?

We all know, at least to some degree, that we hide things even from ourselves.  We all have things we'd rather not face about ourselves but which we acknowledge dimly in our quieter moments.  But what if a whole lot MORE of what we tell ourselves, in order to make sense of ourselves and our worlds, is simply make-believe?

And how do we find what is underneath?

It seems to me, that most, if not all, of the "identities" we develop for ourselves are an overlay that we wear.  A construct, which we use to give ourselves a sense of meaning and stability, and to make sense of the complexities of ourselves and our social worlds.

Some of what we understand about human perception seems relevant here.  I found this stuff fascinating, while I was at uni - and it seemed to pop up in all sorts of subject areas, from psychology, to linguistics, to areas of philosophy.  Even if we are talking about "simple" (haha!) visual or auditory perception, when you examine the input (light, or sound) it is, in fact, unimaginably complex - and there is a very real need to simplify and categorise the information the brain receives, in order to make any sense of it at all.  If we were not able to categorise and simplify our perceptions, mapping them onto our own existing constructs, we would be like very primitive infants;  receiving light, sound and tactile stimulii and making no distinctions between one sensation and another, or even between ourselves and our environment.  In short - making no sense or meaning of any of it.  All of which is to say two things.  One; that "categorical perception" is necessary - and Two; that it is arbitrary.

Our social worlds are no different (and really, our identity is our idea of where we fit, and how we function socially).  As infants we learn to differentiate ourselves from the people around us.  We learn to differentiate our family from strangers.  We go on to differentiate our cultural groupings from others.  Our occupations... our tastes... our beliefs...  In fact, the formation of our individual identities is, in a very real sense, a process of differentiation - where we separate our concept of ourselves, from our concepts of others. 

All this is fine and necessary - but of course it comes with a very big downside.  The identities we construct for ourselves tend to function in ways that go beyond "merely" making sense of the world.  We need them to simplify the world for us, but we tend to lean on them in order not to think.  

An unquestioned self, or social-identity serves several purposes that I can see.  It provides relief from self-examination.  It's sorted!  There is no need for angst or questioning.  It provides a sense of certainty.  When we are settled in our sense of who we are and where we belong, especially if those around us support our identity and accept it as true, it helps with the illusion that the "shell" we are holding up to the world is really ourselves.  We have something "pre-packaged" we can present to the world.  For most of us, this also means that we have an "in-group" (or several) that we are able to identify with.  We belong somewhere, and there are people around us who participate in the same "meaning-making" stories.  This gives us the sense that our interpretation of ourselves and our social worlds is something real and solid. 

But - WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE - if we were able to let go of some of this "certainty"?  I know I'm sounding very abstract, here, but stay with me if you can...  (you'll get it, if you've made it this far!! ;)

Our relationships with others might be a lot free-er.  We might be a lot more comfortable around people who are different than we.  Most people, if they are honest, are uncomfortable with difference.  It's not necessarily a sign of prejudice or bias (although it often is).  People who are not "like" us, challenge our understanding of the world.  That can be uncomfortable.   How much richer, though, would our lives be if we were able to embrace other people and perspectives?  

But what about people who are NOT so different to ourselves?  Our family and friends; significant others...  WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE if we related less according to our shared "stories", and the roles we expect to play.  What if we were able to get beneath all that?  I think it would look a whole lot more like true intimacy.  

I have wrestled for some time over this post!  I'm still not sure I've expressed it properly - so you might have to put up with further mullings on the topic in the future  But in my musings over the past week or so I have seen a bit of a template of "what it might look like" in the life of Jesus.  (surprise, surprise, you say!!)  However the story of the Christ is very centrally a story about identity.  In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is the one who, equal with God Himself, laid his own identity aside and identified with humanity by becoming one of us.  And it didn't stop there.  As a Jewish man, he lived outside of the norms and expectations of his own cultural group.  So far outside, that they were compelled to kill him.  At the pivotal point in the story, we see Christ, hanging on a Roman cross outside the city walls; rejected by the religious system, rejected by the political system, and rejected by the social system.  And in his resurrection we see a new identity being born.  An identity that is "outside" the constraints of culture, gender, or any other social constraints you could name.  Paul refers to this when he says that "In Christ there is no Jew, nor Greek, nor slave nor free".   In identifying with Christ, we identify with a LOSS of identity.  What rises from this death of "self" is something that transcends social and cultural boundaries.  

Recently I saw something in the Genesis story (or Poem, as Josh likes to call it - I like that!)  that I had not seen before - and I believe the roots of this theme of "identity" can be seen there.  After Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit, giving them the "knowledge of good and evil" - perhaps better expressed as the "ability to judge" - their first reaction is shame at their own nakedness.  They were no longer able to be fully exposed and vulnerable to one another.  I see the need for our "social skins" illustrated here.  They cobble together some makeshift garments from leaves.  God comes looking for them, and seeing the problem, mercifully provides skins for them to wear.  When we judge and differentiate, it is not safe to be completely open - to ourselves or others.  When we are able to let go of our "social categories" and the fables that make up our social "identities"; it becomes safe to be ourselves.

When "Church" becomes just another in-group (as it typically does) - it is taking part in a very human story.  But this is not the story of the Christ.  To participate in the story of Christ, we must lose our cobbled-together garments of identity and let our safe, social selves die.  In doing this, we become free to experience something that is quite outside the tidily constrained  "selves" we have constructed.  This death is frightening - but the life beyond, is beyond liberating.


  1. "We all know, at least to some degree, that we hide things even from ourselves. We all have things we'd rather not face about ourselves but which we acknowledge dimly in our quieter moments."

    How much I struggle with that in my quieter moments, which are many. The closet isn't big enough to hold it all in all the time.

    1. Hi, Doug

      We all have our closets... but I think that is absolutely why we need one another. Not only to help us see the skeletons, but also to embrace what is real, with love. I don't believe it is a process we can go through alone - it just isn't possible. We need each other :)

      Much love,

  2. This question of identity is a huge one and something I have written a bit on in the past.

    I think identity means many things to different people. Each is valid within their own experience. Perhaps the question of exploring ones personal / corporate identity is best framed around the questions of what causes an identity crises.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Craig!

      I think you raise a good point when you talk about "what causes an identity crisis". I think we see our own constructs most clearly, when they are challenged or conflicted in some way. Other than that, they are almost invisible to us.

      We NEED those uncomfortable "crises" in order to see what is "constructed" rather than "real", and begin to strip it away.

  3. We could probably write about identity for eternity and still not be any wiser,


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