Identity is formed in relationship. If you were the only person you could experience, you would think that the whole world was about you. As it is, it can be difficult to remember that others have valid lives and needs. We see only through our own eyes, hear only through our own ears, and experience life only from our own perspective. It can be challenging to stop and think of others.
I think this is why we are raised in families, so that we are forced to see others and to see ourselves through their eyes. Each person adds a little more to the picture we learn of ourselves. If things worked right, we would grow strong and healthy and happy as we see our place and role in the group around us.
But things are not working right, are they? We live among sinners in a world filled with sin. Everyone is afraid. Everyone fights for a place of value and respect. Instead of caring for and supporting others, we use each other to get what we want. That’s what sin does. This is especially true in times of trauma. It is natural for us to withdraw into ourselves for our protection. So, when we are afraid or stressed, we tend to think more about ourselves. And, in the world of sin, trauma or potential trauma are always around us.
The Christian context reveals that there are two types of identity. The most obvious is the one shared by all people: Who I am in relation to others. I learn that I am good at certain things, that other things make me afraid, or that I desire to grow in certain areas. These things distinguish me from others. Some are athletic. Some are cerebral. Some are practical. Some are social. The combinations of these and other characteristics give definition to us.
Much of this is learned when we are very young. When the family relationship is dysfunctional, identity within human relationship can seriously suffer. If I fail to adequately learn who I am, or if I form a negative perspective of who I am, then my relationships throughout my life may suffer. This is the experience of too many people.
But there is another level of identity. After a time, most people begin to ask a deeper question. Life is more than being able to do something. I am more than my vocation and there is more to me than the fact that I like some things others do not. Sometimes we go through life changes that force us into other roles or we have to give up things we like. The role we have played among others becomes unavailable and we wonder if there is something more.
After times of loss or times of deep introspection, we begin to ask about our place in the world as a whole, not just among our friends and family. “Who am I” becomes “What am I.” Why am I here and what is my real purpose? The search for those answers changes everything.