This is the age-old question. Throughout the ages, philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, even historians have all made attempts to answer this question. Interestingly, of all the creatures of creation, humans are the only one’s who say, “Who Am I…?” The very one’s who were created with the greatest significance in the image of God seem to somewhere along the way have forgotten who they are. Henri Nouwen, in the book Spiritual Direction, points out that many of us are now prone to answer this question and define ourselves in one or more of the following ways.
I am what I do…
“I am what I do.” When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed. To define yourself based on what you do is to live on an emotional and spiritual roller coaster. Isn’t this largely what one is doing when they experience what is commonly called a midlife crisis? They reach an age or season in life and they look around while asking themselves, “what have I done with my life…?” Then, based on what we’ve perceive we’ve done, we calculate how we’re doing. Our evaluations are often nothing more than the byproduct of how we faired when we compared what we’ve “done” to our peers and those around us.
As we get older and our body begins to deteriorate, rendering us unable to physically do much, all we’ll be able to say is, “Look at what I did in my life… look, look, look, look, I did something good…” Our value, worth, significance and identity will be nothing more than a distant memory and perhaps a faded plaque on the wall.
I am what other people say about me…
Another way we are prone to define ourselves is, “I am what other people say about me.” This is tricky and often subconscious. But, we have to admit, we often expend a tremendous about of head-space worrying (or at least thinking and imagining) what other people are saying about us (or at least what they think about us). Further, they don’t even have to say it or actually think it, but if we think they think it – it can control us just the same. Often, it’s not so much what other people think about you that is the problem; it’s what YOU THINK – THEY THINK.
Don’t be mistaken; what people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart.
I am what I have…
Or, we might say, “I am what I have.” There’s a human tendency to let our things and our stuff determine our identity. The square footage of our homes, to the model of our cars, to the little designs on our hip pockets can all subconsciously serve as the building blocks of how we define ourselves in the eyes of others.
How much energy goes into defining yourself by deciding “I am what I do,” “I am what others say about me,” or “I am what I have”?
You are not, fundamentally, what you do, what other people say about you, or what you have. You are loved by God.
In the book, A Traveler Toward the Dawn, John Eagan describes an encounter he has with his spiritual director on the sixth day on his annual, silent eight-day retreat, “John, the heart of it is this: to make the Lord and his immense love for you constitutive of your personal worth. Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. God’s love for you and his choice of you constitutive your worth. Accept that, and let it become the most important thing in your life.”
“Who am I?” “I am one loved by Christ.” -Thomas Merton
Consider the first human, Adam. God created Adam for the very purpose of finding pleasure in his union with the Creator of the universe. Before Adam was given any assignment, role or responsibility, he was put in a place conducive for intimacy with the Almighty. Scripture says,
“The LORD God took Adam and placed him in the garden of Eden.” (Genesis 2:15)
The Lord God took Adam and put him in the garden of Eden. The word “garden” used here means, “a place of enclosure.” The word “Eden” means, “delight or pleasure.” In other words, Adam was enclosed in the place of God’s pleasure and delight. God always surrounds those in whom He takes pleasure and finds delight. This is how the first human defined himself. His identity was not based on what he did, what other humans thought, or what he had. It was based solely on what God said. And, God said, “You are loved.” If we were to rewrite Genesis 2:15 with this expanded understanding, perhaps it would look like this:
There was once a town high in the Alps that straddled the banks of a beautiful stream. The stream was fed by springs that were old as the earth and deep as the sea.
The water was clear like crystal. Children laughed and played beside it; swans and geese swam in it. You could see rocks and sand and rainbow trout that swarmed at the bottom of the stream.
High in the hills, far beyond anyone’s sight, lived an old man who served as Keeper of the Springs. He had been hired so long ago that now no one could remember a time when he wasn’t there. He would travel from one spring to another in the hills, removing branches or fallen leaves or debris that might pollute the water. But his work was unseen.