“Know thyself” – Socrates
Last week, I re-posted a longish discussion of Robert Ardrey’s theory that Identity, Stimulation, and Security are the three psychological and emotional needs that we must fulfill once our immediate physical needs are satisfied. I titled that post “Three Vectors of Emotional Health,” and I declared my intention to comment further on these three needs over the next several posts. As you can tell from today’s title, I want to begin the discussion of identity.
Who are you?
When we meet someone new, we immediately want to know who he or she is. Interestingly, we don’t ask the question directly. To begin, we’ll ask the newcomer’s name, or we’ll offer our own, but most of the time the next question is “What do you do?” If we’re particularly proud of our occupation, we’ll reply with our job title, or maybe the name of the prestigious company we work for. Since nearly everyone you know does this, I don’t want to imply that it’s sinister. Most people are asking as a method for uncovering shared interests or values — common denominators as my communications professor used to call them. And these shared ties can serve as conversational bridges that enable people to get to know each other.
There is, however, more than a whiff of comparison implicit in the question. This is the near-animal level of marking territory, sizing each other up, establishing the pecking order. Think of two dogs sniffing each other — look familiar? This base motivation and behavior is a mark of laziness, insecurity, or both. Certainly it’s beneath the dignity of a man who knows who he is.
Over time, I have made it a point to avoid the “what do you do” question when I first meet someone. It forces me to be more observant and to think of better, more engaging questions. I have to pay attention since I have not fallen into the typical conversational pattern. Not everyone appreciates this: I once asked a man about the biggest goal he had achieved. He was insulted and suspicious of my motive for asking. Even when I explained I was trying to get to know him, he was wary. (Based on that reaction, I have shelved that question, by the way.)
You are NOT what do you do
I agree that our actions help to establish our reputation and reveal our character, but our actions are like photographs. A moment — good or bad — that is a less-than-accurate portrayal of one’s substance, his existence. Actions, like photographs, can reveal something true, but they are an effect, not a cause.
You do realize — don’t you — that you are not what you do? Not what you do for a paycheck, not for amusement, not even for God — you are not what you do. Consider that if you derive your identity from your job, your strength, your looks, your talent, or your charm, there isn’t one of those things that you can’t lose. If your sense of self comes from something that can leave you, who are you if or when it leaves? To begin to understand your identity, you must begin with attributes that cannot change over the course of your life.
Here we go again! Yes — because it’s important. If your worldview is a biblical one — where you view the whole of life through the lens of Scripture addressing the root questions of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration — you have the best set of tools for understanding who you are. Harking back to the question of Creation — where did man come from — one with a biblical worldview would hold that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, human life is special and people of every race, ethnicity, age, kind, and ability are worthy of dignity. This is the basis for human rights and natural law — the belief that human beings have God-given rights and we don’t muck with them.
So when you meet someone for the first time, you have an automatic foundation of respect and dignity that you afford him. King or peasant, both have worth, so you begin your acquaintance free from the burden of striving for position. Of course, this depends on your being confident in your own identity.
It’s who you know
While what you do doesn’t establish your identity, whom you love and who loves you are enormously important. I’ve said before that very few of us are intended to live as hermits. What I mean is we are wired for relationships, and part of our identity comes from those most intimate connections. If you have a biblical worldview, you know that as a creature made in the image of God, you are known and loved by God, and your life has intrinsic worth.
In Revelation, the last book of the Bible, Jesus promises that those who are faithful to Him will receive a new name on a white stone. Who can give you your true name? Only God can do this, but you see that this is only possible in the context of a relationship. God is a person — not a kiosk, or a soulless process like the worst stereotypes of the DMV.
I’ll develop this discussion further in an upcoming post.