Monday, April 16, 2012

Who Are You?

I have a fascination with quizzes like this one

Despite the disorder of the thoughts in my head, as ideas tumble like books off shelves and sprawl face-down on the mind's floor, littering till I come and dust them off and put them back, there is an odd allure to the promise of classification, of order, of being neatly labelled and put on the correct shelf.

I love to see myself mapped, charted, plotted on the graph of existence, told this is where you stand, this is where you belong... dare I say the desire goes deeper, to be told- this is who you are.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and I sift through the pictures, trying to choose– trying to choose me. Where am I in the visual matrix of... shoes? Am I the pair of scuffed Converse All-Stars, rubber toes touching in a gesture of casual uncertainty, or the simple foam flip flops flung to the floor? Certainly I'm not the manicured toenails in strappy pink heels. I am trying to identify myself– no, to let someone else identify me– by which pair of shoes best represents me. American self-definition at its finest. I choose the flip-flops.

Facebook just changed again, and I spent twenty minutes exploring the "map" which I can use to show all the places I've been, the things I've done, complete with pictures! Here is Meredith's life, illustrated... come see who I am, in color! 

But who am I?

The Internet tailors itself now to my tastes, my preferences, my interests, gathering information about me at every click so that it can shower me with advertisements for all the things I might like. Amazon's algorithms recommend books I might enjoy. The university here recently sent me a survey to ask me how I think student organizations ought to be run on campus (I didn't have an opinion, but for a chance to win a free iPad? Sure, I'll fill in multiple choice answers!) And then this personality quiz, and the irony: As a Harmonizer, the expert quiz tells me, it's important to learn to trust your intuition and to know that everything will work out for the best... Your confidence and self-belief will continue to grow.

Hear the declaration– trust yourself, believe in yourself, develop yourself, but let us tell you who you are! You are a Harmonizer, and that means x, y, and z. Happy living! 

I live in a country that says "You can do whatever you want, you can be whoever you want" and we create our online profiles and our résumés and our school personalities and all the time our souls are starving to be told who we are, where do we stand, what is our meaning? I study writing as a process of making meanings, and in this age of abundance and materialism we desperately piece together our lives as a process of making identity (a touch of artistic culture there, a dash of spirituality there, sprinkle generously with bewitching style and fashion), yet we still fall back to online quizzes to tell us who we are.

There is a girl in my Renaissance literature class, and when we were discussing Renaissance concepts of love and beauty the other day she said, "When I see a girl with a cute guy, I'm only jealous if she's uglier than me. If she's prettier, then of course she deserves him." A beautifully simple philosophy for life. Being pretty means you deserve things, like cute guys, and not being pretty means you don't deserve them. What about self-esteem? screams pop psychology, but girls like my classmate know better. Have self-confidence, trust yourself to the moon and back, sweetheart, but by the way, make sure you're pretty or you're not worth anything. You want definition? You want identity? You got it!

Here is an experiment: which do you remember more vividly, the time that someone else told you that you were not valuable in some way, or all the times that you've told yourself that you are valuable? Which would you rather experience: telling yourself that you're beautiful (or smart, or valuable, insert whatever positive characteristic you like) or hear someone else telling you that you're beautiful?

We can craft ourselves, shape ourselves, mold ourselves, define ourselves into oblivion, and the soul-ache is still there. How many times do we need to hear "I love you!" from the person who loves us best? Why isn't once just enough? Why do we have "self-help" sections in the bookstore? Why do we need so much help believing in ourselves? 

What if... just perhaps... identity is something that cannot be self-crafted?

The Pilot's words draw close to me, from two nights ago when I clung to his voice in a moment of shattering when doubt closed in. Please tell me who I am, I pleaded, and into the black mess of my lies he spoke truth, You are my wife, you are my partner, you are my best friend, but more importantly, you're a child of God.

More importantly.

God wired us so that He told us who we were, and outside that relationship that said we were loved and valuable and beautiful, we didn't have any worth at all... what if a person isn't supposed to... have glory on his own, but rather get glory from the God who loves him? What if, in the same way the sun feeds plants, God's glory gives us life?... What if... we will be fulfilled when we are finally with God and, in His companionship, we know who we are? (emphasis mine)

                   ~ Donald Miller, Searching For God Knows What

What the Pilot said about me in relationship to him was true, but if that was where it stopped, then my importance is based on how good of a wife, how good of a partner, how good of a friend I am to him, and my identity hinges on that and when I stumble, when I fail miserably to be the wife and friend I long to be, then I am unmaking myself. But my husband didn't stop there, and he affirmed the identity that I cannot unmake, no matter how hard I fall and how deeply I fail: you're a child of God.

When the crises come, my own clutching attempts to self-define are inadequate. I am designed to have someone else tell me who I am, and if that isn't the Someone who created me then I will spend life trying to drown out the voices that say "be pretty or you're not worth anything" by the voices that say "you're pretty" but all the time I'll be wondering if the first voices aren't right, because if the authority to define me comes from other people then why shouldn't one voice be just as right as another?

Life words from other people are important, make no mistake. Affirmation is a gift that makes the soul sing. Yet if human voices are where we begin and end, we will become praise-hoarders, glory-gluttons, never able to be satiated with enough positive identity, desperate to hide our faults and display our virtues so that the people will think well of us. 

When the Pilot spoke to me in the dark of my night, he was not giving me identity me but rather helping me remember the identity I already have. We need our lovers, our friends, our families, not to define us but to remind us. The echo of Eden reverberates through the human soul, when Adam and Eve walked before God and were "naked and unashamed", because they were listening to His voice and no other tell them who they were. 

The lifeboat system of redemption seems so ugly in comparison to the love of God. We can trust our fate to a jury of peers in the lifeboat, we can work to accumulate wealth, buy beauty under a surgeon's knife, panic for our identities under the fickle friendship of culture, and still die in separation from the one voice we really needed to hear.
              ~ Donald Miller

Or we can listen.

Listen again. Let the Voice that spoke the stars into their dance and the oceans into their ebb and flow and the glory of the world into existence drown out all the other voices. Let the Love that created you define you. Let Him tell you who you are.

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