When I was a young newlywed, my mother-in-law often told me “you don’t know who you are.” She usually reserved the remark for those times when I’d been a bit of a pill … and that seemed to happen a lot.
At the time I was a 30-something professional, building a career, enthusiastic in my evangelical faith, and trying to figure out how to be a good husband. It was a time of becoming in my life when, like Robert Frost, I approached a variety diverging roads, each offering tantalizing, but mutually exclusive opportunities.
My mother-in-law had a very definite perception of me, and that did not always line up with my own self-perception, what I wanted from life or who I wanted to be.
The truth is, when my mother-in-law told me “you don’t know who you are,” I’m guessing it was her way of saying “just who do you think you are, mister,” or “I don’t like where you’re going in life … with my daughter in tow.” While she’s not known for sugarcoating her concerns, she will always challenge you to think and understand.
To be fair, I can be a bit of a dreamer with the bad habit of thinking aloud. And that’s the kind of thing that can frighten a blushing bride’s mother. While I never threatened to run away to the circus with her daughter, I did talk of leaving a great job and heading off to the seminary in Missouri or a creative writing graduate program in Ohio.
I’ve never seen dreams as the substance of an identity crisis. Instead, I see myself as just another traveler who continues to evolve along the road. But, as I noted in Playing Dodgeball with Dylan, I have at times struggled with identities others would assign me.
With more years of life and marriage under my belt, my dreams and sense of “new becoming” have tempered, and I’m definitely less likely to take an exit for the circus. I’ve accepted most of what life has thrown at me, and much of what I know it will never give me. I find the here and now a pretty good place. And I’m far less likely to take on identities others wish for me.
Clearly, I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately: Our identity as private individuals as well as our sense of who we are culturally, ethnically, professionally or religiously. How much of that identity do we manufacture for others to see, how much do others put on us, and what is organically real in our hearts?
As I see it, identity is not absolute and concrete. But, if excessively squishy, it can lead to life adrift, with no anchor or home port. As I continue this navel-gazing, I think there could be four elements to identity:
- Internal: The foundation of who I am. Honest familiarity with my real self is optional and often takes some courage.
- Projected: How I want others to see me. Again, honesty is recommended, but not mandatory.
- Received: How others perceive me, regardless of my attempts to influence their perceptions. This is where thick skin comes in handy.
- Influenced: This is how others prefer to see me. Often projecting stereotypes or desires that are directly influenced by their own identity issues.
As I continue to explore identity, it would be great to have some company along the road.
Who do you think you are? How do you know? Who do you want to be? Post your thoughts on the matter and share with me your stories of “finding yourself” along the road.