I was visiting an old, dear friend the other day: Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak. In it, Palmer points out that Douglas Steere, the Quaker teacher, was fond of asking the question, “Who am I?” He liked it, I think, because it led him to the question, “Whose am I?” I raise these two questions because as I mature in my life and in my faith, I’ve come to believe that there is no self-hood outside of relationship.
We begin as children by relating to our parents. We gain nearly all of our identity from them as young little people. The circle expands slowly to include our teachers and then our classmates. By the teenage years we are finding all of our identity in the words others use to describe us. That’s probably why “cut-downs,” as we used to call them, hurt so badly, and are hurled so frequently in those angst-filled adolescent years. I remember once realizing that one of the ugliest girls I ever knew as a teenager was ugly because of her words. I don’t mean curse words, but her insults to others. I understand now, sympathetically, that she was just working out her stuff, just like the rest of us.
By the time we make it to adulthood, we’re not really improved in this respect. We’ve simply learned to block out some of those words, and turn to the mirror for a little more of an identity fix. But still, we try on different masks, imagining ourselves as being better or worse than we really are. Anne Lamott expresses this in Grace Eventually when she wonders why we look at pictures of ourselves that are years old and think, “I was beautiful,” but never think that about ourselves in the here and now.
Our identity is a thing which we chase after and grapple for throughout every stage of our lives. We long for identity as a sibling, or as a child of someone, or even as the parent of someone. I go to the little league field and watch all these dads yelling at their kids, or cheering for their kids, living out their unfulfilled childhoods right there on a miniature baseball field. I’ve seen grown men yelling at their kids for messing up on the field and it makes me want to cry for the kid who’s out there just trying figure out their identity as a kid and play a sport that’s nearly too awkward for their little bodies.
I’ve seen grown women primping their daughters for dates or saying, “You’re too thin,” or more likely, “You’re too fat.” You’re too this, you’re too that. Mom’s and dad’s working out their identities like this, always thinking they are to blame for their kids’ mistakes, and ready to take all the credit for their kids’ glories and accomplishments.
Who am I? It’s a timeless question that evolves into “Whose am I?” because of the interconnectedness of our mis-woven identities. You tell me who I am, and I’ll tell you who you are.
I think Jesus natively understood this when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He continues in John 15.5, saying, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” There is a statement of identity that changes everything. If you know much about grapevines, you understand what he’s saying. There’s no fruit in our lives if we’re not connected to the true source of our identity, a very rootedness in God.
I connect this thinking to a poem I read in Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 – A Turning Back to Poetry.
Dorianne Laux wrote "Singing Back to the World":
I don’t remember how it began.
The singing. Judy at the wheel
in the middle of Sentimental Journey.
The side of her face glowing.
Her full lips moving.
Beyond her shoulder
the little houses sliding by.
And Geri. Her frizzy hair tumbling
in the wind wing’s breeze, fumbling
with the words. All of us singing
as loud as we can. Off key.
Not even a semblance of harmony.
Driving home in a blue Comet singing
I’ll Be Seeing You and Love Is a Rose.
The love songs of war. The war songs
of love. Mixing up verses, eras, words.
Songs from stupid musicals.
Coming in strong on the easy refrains.
Straining our middle aged voices
trying to reach impossible notes,
reconstruct forgotten phrases.
Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.
Shamelessly la la la-ing
whole sections. Forgetting
the rent, the kids, the men,
the other woman. The sad goodbye.
The whole of childhood. Forgetting
the lost dog, Polio. The grey planes
pregnant with bombs. Fields of
white headstones. All of it gone
as we struggle to remember
the words. One of us picking up
where the others leave off. Intent
on the song. Forgetting our bodies,
their pitiful limbs, their heaviness.
Nothing but three throats
Beating back the world – Laurie’s
radiation treatments. The scars
on Christina’s arms. Kim’s brother.
Molly’s grandfather. Jane’s sister.
Singing to the telephone poles
skimming by. Stoplights
blooming green. The road
a glassy black river edged
with brilliant gilded weeds. The car
an immense boat cutting the air
into blue angelic plumes. Singing
Blue Moon and Paper Moon
and Mack the Knife, and Nobody Knows
the Trouble I’ve Seen.
For these women, singing the old songs pushed back against all those things that sought to define them and their identities. I like the poem because of its pervasive sadness and close staring into the mirror of life, but yet an unyielding belief that the songs fought against all of those things.
For me, when the madness of the world brings that pervasive sadness, I find the reminder that I am a branch on the vine restorative. But I wonder about you? What do you do to “sing back the world” when it becomes too forceful in it’s forging of your identity?
Palmer concludes his thought on Steere’s questions with this:
“As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted – the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself.” p. 17
So, some questions:
1. Do you sense that you are your true self most days? When does that happen? Where?
2. Do you buy the idea that our identities are shaped by competing factors around us? By others around us?
3. How does the phrase, “abide in me” work to define our identity?
4. How might we more closely “abide” in Jesus?
5. Have you ever been “pruned” by God? How did that feel?