(In a Very Confused World)
Our world today, particularly in the West, is suffering through a frightful identity crisis. If you doubt this assertion just look closely at the ridiculous identity politics that has overrun college campuses. Universities have always been the bell-weathers of society so the current gender dystopia verging on hysteria that we now commonly see among students is an ill wind that blows. It would appear that many young people today are undergoing what was called in the ’60s a major “identity crisis.” The pendulum has finally swung full circle.
One of the main purposes of our human existence is to discover one’s identity. The persistent question “Who am I?” presents itself to every new generation almost from the first moment of childhood consciousness. It is not an easy question to answer from within our subjective prisms, however. My identity only gradually unfolds, first through contact with family but later through friends, teachers, and finally the larger outside world. This suggests that, discounting the pathological narcissist, we must form our identities within and through the medium of relationships.
But this is not such a straightforward process as it may sound. For instance, beginning in childhood a visible disparity in the way that boys and girls identify themselves begins to manifest itself. While females generally understand and develop their identities through relationships, males seem to be on a whole different track. Boys are apt to identify more with roles or mechanisms. Children’s toys testify to this dichotomy between male and female identities: trucks and weapons vs. dolls and tea sets. Boys, like men in general, identify with some occupation: fireman, doctor, soldier, athlete ─ and also with their possessions. Girls identify with their family and friends.
For men, this “occupational identification” can have real consequences later when they marry and have families. They may become restless in the home because of their innate drive “to do, to fix, or to build.” Women are more inclined to nurture and to nourish relationships. This gives them a natural advantage over men who try to establish their identities through accomplishments rather than through relationships. The woman usually prioritizes personal relationships over accomplishment because she correctly senses that her own identity falls within a larger social context. Of course, this may also put her at a disadvantage at those times when she may need to resist undue social pressure. Therefore, her moral and intellectual independence is more easily compromised when there is a question of harming those relationships.
The beauty of marriage is that it allows a man and a woman to help discover who they truly are as each compensates for the other’s weakness. A man can strengthen the woman’s resolve while she, in turn, is able to humanize him by emphasizing the importance of relationships over work or possessions. Ideally, the two will lead one another into a deeper appreciation and understanding of their own human identities by seeing themselves in a whole new light and thereby growing from their shared experiences.
Today those lines are less clearly drawn due to the pervasive influence of radical feminism. I am not talking about the benign Christian feminism that historically held women and mothers in highest respect. This new feminism would have all women seek their identities according to the male standard of competitive success, but the price they will pay for such success is high, not only for themselves but for their families as well. By sacrificing that natural feminine genius for nurturing and caring in a quest to realize the competitive edge, feminists, ironically, makes the “man’s world” they often vilify even more hardened, masculine, and impersonal. In the end such feminists become little more than surrogate men searching for their identity in “occupations” rather than through “relationships.”
It is important, therefore, to realize that “what we do” can never entirely define “who we are.” We are the cumulative products of a family and of a history which transpired long before our late arrival on the scene. Our true identity stems from a composite of all those things superimposed, as it were, upon a unique personality. But history still plays a large part in defining us and that history goes all the way back to our first parents, Adam and Eve, and ultimately to God who is the cause of all those people who later came to be, including you and me. Our true identity can only be discovered in light of that overriding reality.
When the Bible relates, “in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27) it makes a profound statement about who we really are. From the very beginning man’s existence depends upon one particular relationship, the one with God. But from that many other relationships proliferate: Adam to Eve, husbands to wives, parents to children. In other words, our human identities are inextricably tied to a nuptial relationship which is, first and foremost, God’s nuptial relationship with a people made in his own image. God didn’t just create our first parents and leave them to fend for themselves. He walked with them and gave them charge of the garden. (Gen. 2:15) He freely entered into a covenantual relationship with them. Even after their failure to live up to that marriage covenant, God continued to pursue mankind like a determined lover who refuses to be rejected.
The core of Adam’s and Eve’s sin was their attempt to establish identities apart from their true spouse, God. Of course they failed because, separated from the source of every identity (I Am Who Am), a human person can only lose his identity, not establish a new one. From that moment onward the defining mark of sin has been to seek after one’s own identity without reference to God, the author of all identities. For countless eons now men have attempted to create alter-identities through dynasties, empires, gangs, and social organizations or in the pursuit of sex, fame, and celebrity status.
Even in such pitiful attempts though the necessity of relationship in man’s relentless search for personal identity is manifest. He thereby imitates his Creator, wittingly or not. For God himself exists in eternal relationship. He knows himself through the relationship of Father to Son and Son to Father, bound together in a total communion of love (which we call the Holy Spirit). Our human relationships are not so pure however, because they are often driven by other considerations than love ─ power or control, for instance.
But God made us to reflect himself so that, ideally, man and woman can learn who they are through the experience of a loving relationship. In that sense, marriage and family are vivid images of God who remains a very real, if unspoken, partner in their nuptial union. Ultimately it is this participation with God that makes marriage such a sacred institution. It continues and signifies that original nuptial union between God and mankind.
But one does not have to marry before discovering one’s identity. God allows for those in every station of life to discover who they are through the particular vocation, or calling, he has chosen for each person. Every vocation ─ single, married, or religious ─ still demands the forming of relationships with others and, most importantly, with God himself. The people who truly know themselves and faithfully undertake whatever vocation he gives them are called saints. Vocation always involves ministering to others, and it is in such ministry that we can finally shed all the selfish and counterfeit identities we have accumulated and discover our true identity in God once and for all.
Apart from God, one can never really find his full identity but only bits and pieces of it. As a result of our cultural drift away from God we now see people searching out their identity in very bizarre ways. Goth culture, full body tattoos, exhibitionism, gender denial, or even extreme competitiveness: these are all various ways of acting out confused identities. If such persons no longer see themselves as children of God how else are they going to view themselves? Freakishness only becomes desirable because it sets one apart and affords some means, however twisted, of forming an identity of sorts. In one sense such feeble attempts to identify are but a return to male adolescence where one’s play toys or job description provides a substitute identity ─ essentially a mask which only hides from us who we truly are.
We were not created to be Lone Rangers, forever hiding behind a mask. We are meant to live openly and to discover who we truly are within the larger framework of relationships, not only with neighbors and spouses, but above all with the God who created us and imprinted each of us with a unique and indelible identity. The most important relationship any human being can cultivate is that of the divine Trinity of Persons. His is the only relationship through which we can fully discover just who we are.
I can only hope to know myself fully by knowing myself the way that God knows me. After all, He is the one who “knit me in my mother’s womb.” (Ps. 139:13) Only when I come to know myself as I am known (by God) can I hope to discover my real identity, complete and unadulterated. What the world may see and judge by is strictly a veneer. What my Maker and eternal Spouse sees and knows intimately is the real person. The vital question for each one of us to ponder is this, “Which of those two do I choose to be?”
Francis J. Pierson +a.m.d.g.
P.S. Summer vacations have delayed any new posts for the past month. For that I apologize. Jeanne and I had a wonderful time in Wisconsin experiencing not only amazing scenery and cool weather but the beautiful Marian shrines of Our Lady of Good Help just outside of Green Bay and, later, Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse. Both are highly recommended destinations for pilgrimage if you are ever in that part of the world.
August and September should be busy months as well with the great eclipse appearing on August 21, also trips to Scotland and England to follow, but I hope to squeeze in at least two posts between those activities. May God bless your summer! FJP