How one chooses to define oneself has become a political issue. It is assumed that we can, by force of will, define the essence of our lives. Hidden within this questionable assumption is a truth about how our minds work. If we think of ourselves as failures, we will most likely fail. Our way of seeing does, in fact, have a predictive power within ourselves.
While this has a truth about it, we must not think that the power to rethink whom we are can change the concrete objective essence of our being. Some things are just given: our sexuality, our family, our physicality. This does not mean that there is not a vast area of change and adaptation intrinsic to ourselves. Much of who we can become is within our reach through hard work, commitment, and the reordering of priorities.
The fact that I have been born from an Italian-American family is a fact that I can’t change (nor want to!). But my being a priest is a product of God’s call and my acceptance of that call. Although I became a Catholic Christian because of the given nature of most Italian-Americans, at some point I accepted this and was in a position to hear God’s call and to respond to it. My being a priest is a combination of historical circumstance (my family) and free choice (my vocation).
Therefore, when I look at who I am I must first and foremost say: “I am a Christian (i.e. a disciple of Christ).” This most fully expresses the essence of my being. All the rest: the fact that I am male, an American, a Yankee fan, etc. are of secondary importance (maybe not so much the Yankee part!).
How I choose to define myself will have a lot to do with what eventually emerges from my life. Like the calculations made mathematically in space travel, where a single tiny decimal point may jettison the mission completely, so a false idea of who I am ultimately will have tremendous impact on myself and the lives of those around me.
If I am a creation of God Himself, then that says a great deal about my listening to the will of my Creator. If I am a Christian, then I must model my life according to the pattern of my Master: Jesus the Christ.
But if I see myself as just an accidental accumulation of patterns and processes in evolutionary combat, then I don’t quite matter so much except in how I affect the batch.
If I am the master of my life and the only and final arbiter of right and wrong, then I have made myself into my own god.
To be a believer is to see myself as a servant of the Almighty. This requires the very important and foundational virtue of humility. The sin of Satan, called Lucifer before the War in Heaven, was that of pride and envy. This is what infected Adam and Eve and their son Cain. It is the primordial sin and the basis of all subsequent sinfulness. We think that we are more important and more central than God.
However, humility glories in the saving fact that we are not God; that we can rely on someone greater than ourselves and that all existence does not hinge on our decisions and judgments. It is what St. John the Evangelist calls, “the glorious freedom of the children of God”. For God in Christ elevates the faithful servant-steward into a child and a son and an heir. But that movement of grace must begin with humility, and that is a state that only we can bestow on the process of salvation.
Once one is in that humble place of self-understanding, one can, through continual watchfulness, interpret the signs of God’s instruction in the human mind and soul. Since one has placed the center of one’s meaning in God and if one looks to God as the sort of senior partner in moving ahead in life, than our identity is forged in that primary relationship. So the operative question is not “Who am I?”, it is “Who do You (God) think I should be?”
If understood correctly, this is a sea change in perspective and has deep and pervasive consequences for one’s internal identity. It is the stance of the ‘believer’ who is at work in the field of the Lord accomplishing His will and co-creating his or her identity in the Lord.
Secular thinking on the issue of identity is monistic, that is, coming from a single core self. For the believer, questions of identity flow from a dialogical conversation with the Almighty.
Therefore, while some elements of my identity are fixed and must be accepted as part of God’s creation of me, there are many other parts of my identity that flow from the basic assumptions of my life and what I freely choose to be foundational in what I do that work with God in the co-creation of the project of my being. I am, therefore, called to be both docile and creative in forging the identity of my life.