“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
In my original post on this topic, I explained Robert Ardrey’s idea that our psychological and emotional needs center on Identity, Stimulation, and Security. In my previous post on Identity we discussed that identity emanates from essence, from existence. It is rooted primarily in the unchangeable attributes that accompany us into the world and throughout our lives. We also established that our deeds do not establish our identity so much as they reveal it. But even then, they do so imperfectly.
But if I don’t discover my identity from what I do, why do anything?
As in exercise, your muscles won’t grow if you merely lie around thinking about working out. You have to get off the couch and hit the gym, the box, the bike, the dojo. You will never develop the strength and skill you desire without purposeful action.
Similarly, if you are an artist or an entrepreneur, you must commit to the mastery of your craft and you must paint, compose, perform, or launch — even while you are learning. Entrepreneurs commit to a cycle of “launch and iterate,” trying and refining, and always learning. You have heard me say before that “You’re either green and growing, or you’re ripe and rotting.” I stand by that. And I’m still learning and growing myself. If you’re reading this, I expect you’re interested in learning and growing, too.
Sometimes you have to get moving without a clear picture of who you are. But I submit to you that the ideal is to move out of a sense of your identity and calling, instead of doing as a way to discover who you are. The categories are not entirely black and white, but in my next post I’ll illustrate why action must emanate from identity.
Now let’s talk about some ways you can help strengthen your sense of identity.
What are your assets?
What traits do you possess that provide clues to your identity? What do you know of your ancestry — good and bad? What victories and wounds are in your past? What have you learned to this point? What are you learning, and from whom? Is it easy or hard for you to learn? In what domains? What is your ethnicity, and what does that reveal about you? What is your master passion — that is, what makes your heart come alive?
Understand that these are clues that will help you assess who you are and who you’re meant to be under Heaven.
Where do you fit?
Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church discusses a method he and his church devised called “Discovering your SHAPE for Ministry.” It’s an acrostic that encourages each of us to discover his role in the body by considering five attributes: Spiritual gifts, Heart, Aptitude(s), Personality, and Experience/Education. The church uses these assays to help its members find ways to serve that fit their God-given purpose.
When you know who you are, and what you’re good at, it reveals your purpose in your immediate context. This is true in the church and also in life. But even if it leaves you restless, that can be fuel that propels you toward the ultimate fulfillment of your destiny. You have to be looking for it, though. I doubt that caterpillars have any idea their destiny is to become butterflies, but if they don’t fulfill the mission of being caterpillars, they won’t realize their amazing potential.
As I’ve written before about building on strengths instead of correcting weaknesses — if you’re built to be a defensive back, you’re wasting everyone’s time trying to play offensive tackle.
I know what I just said, but…
If, however, you have an overpowering sense of destiny that you are certain is not from yourself, you owe it to yourself to explore it — even if it seems foolish. Consider the Biblical stories of Gideon and King David. When we encounter both men in the Bible, neither displays the potential that God sees in Him.
And NBA fans should take note of league MVP Stephen Curry who was not a top college prospect based on his size, but literally grew into the star he became during his undergraduate career at Davidson College. It’s only possible to persevere against impossible circumstances when one is sure who — and whose — he is.
Beware the False Self
The late Brennan Manning called it “the Impostor.” John Eldredge calls it the false self — that living by your wits in the realm of appearances — instead of living authentically according to the condition of your heart. I’ve learned a lot through the years from John Eldredge’s writings, and I recommend them to you if you want to go deeper into this idea of living from your heart. King Solomon described the heart as “the wellspring of life” in Proverbs, so this is not an option or an accessory. In many ways, this is what it means to live a redeemed and restored life.
Please note well that this redemption comes from God’s loving us in our brokenness and weakness.
In an upcoming post, I plan to talk about the threat of tribalism, and how we need to find a way to cool our jets. But this tendency to associate with people who share our values is nothing new. We are all attracted to environments where we can trust and be trusted, know and be known, and communities where values are more homogeneous tend to have higher standards of living, lower incidence of crime, and less violence.
A lot of times this is a positive thing. Presbyterians join with other Presbyterians to worship in a style they prefer and serve effectively based on their shared doctrines. Baptists do this with other Baptists; Catholics with Catholics, and so on. The problems begin when one becomes so invested in the rightness of his way that he cannot recognize good faith on the part of those who go about their worship or work differently. Given the lingering rancor from the most recent US election season, I believe you can see the danger of hyper-partisanship.
Belonging is powerful — and being an outcast is powerfully negative.
Affiliation is interesting. Belonging to a group can reinforce your sense of identity. Veterans have a built-in affinity for fellow veterans. Alumni of given schools bond readily over their shared experience — even if it was decades apart. We all crave acceptance by people we admire. And we feel ruined when we experience rejection. This fear of being excluded — the dread of being exposed as something less than a man, or of being shunned for being different is what gives the false self its power. We need to feel connected.
This explains in part why so many men are diehard sports fans. The process of initiation into cheering for any team is minimal-to-non-existent, and it brings no risk, no cost. Simply wearing the jersey gives you an automatic “in” with other fans. In contrast to the investment of the athletes themselves, emotional investment in a team is nowhere near as time and energy-intensive as the effort expended in the gym and on the field. It’s fine to watch a game, and to be a fan, but for your own sake, have an identity that is your own, and don’t outsource it to any athlete, any team, or any league. You’ll thank me — and here’s just one reason:
Did you know that your favorite sports team can affect your testosterone level? It’s true. When your team wins, you get a boost in your T-level. Conversely, when your team loses, your testosterone level decreases. I’m all for enjoying a ball game as entertainment, but my identity doesn’t rise or fall with the home team, and I’m done wearing another man’s name on my back.