Identity-ing: Embracing Identity in Flux
I have a good friend who went through what one might call a minor identity crisis during her junior year at Stanford. We would go jogging around Campus Drive and she would tell me things like, “Liz, I don’t think I like boba as much as people think I do.”
As an avid boba lover, I tried not to be offended. But of course, it wasn’t about the boba. My friend’s boba epiphany had caused her to reflect on the ways in which she had constructed an identity for herself and built relationships at Stanford by communicating her interests to others and learning about their interests in turn – all good things, except now, two years later, she found herself discovering that some of the things about which she had formerly expressed strong opinions (e.g. “I love boba!”) were no longer as true as they had been, or perhaps that her statements had been interpreted more strongly than she had intended. What else did people think or assume about her that didn’t actually reflect the realities of her life? What interests had she pursued because others were excited about them rather than because they expressed a good and true part of her identity? These reflections were disorienting.
What do we do when we find – suddenly or gradually, in relatively trivial things like boba or in weightier things – that we are not who we used to be, or we are not who others think we are? An identity formed in high school around a sport, musical instrument, or debate team crumbles when that interest is left behind upon arrival at Stanford. A major or career path turns out not to be everything we hoped, and we feel confused and perhaps make a change, and that part of our identity is altered. We experience a profound loss – the death of someone close to us, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of our own health – and what we thought was sure footing feels as though it is shifting and sinking beneath us.
Identity is sometimes not as stable as we like to think, and we are less in control of it than we want to imagine, and the process of its flux is often jarring and sometimes deeply painful. I would like to suggest that this disorienting experience of identity in flux is something we can embrace rather than avoid or feel ashamed of; when we are attentive to the confusion and loss associated with the ways in which our sense of identity changes over time, we are attentive to the God who does not minimize this loss but yet promises that there is something new in the making.
Theologian Sarah Coakley approaches Christian thought about God as “theology in via” -theology on the way, rooted in “spiritual practices of attention that…simultaneously darken and break one’s hold on previous certainties.” Coakley sees theology as a quest not necessarily for a complete and static set of truths, but for a “new perspective” that “recapture[s] the contemporary imagination for Christ” and “reinvite[s] reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel.” Perhaps our identities, like our thinking about God in general or our understanding of our own religious faith in particular, are identities in via – on the way, not ever quite fully formed. Perhaps identity is most authentic and alive when it is open to radical disruption from some new truth discovered or old half-truth discarded.
From another angle, according to Sharon Daloz Parks, our faith is a faith in flux, described better as a verb than a noun – as “faithing,” if you will. Faith is not so much a commodity to be obtained, measured, or lost, but a process of formulating and reformulating the ways in which we make sense of the world – a process in which healthy adults, and particularly young adults, engage on an ongoing basis, both in response to crisis experiences and as a part of everyday life. If we engage in a process of “faithing,” perhaps we may engage in a similar process of “identity-ing”: not so much trying to establish a set identity that we cling to at all costs, but developing, reflecting on, and readjusting our sense of self as we continue to encounter new experiences and ideas.
For Christians in particular, we might even say that our original religious identity, historically speaking, was that of people of the Way. (According to the book of Acts, this is what the early believers in Jesus were called before they began to be known as Christians.) At its best, Christianity has never been about establishing and defending a rigid identity, but about a dynamic life of following in the Way of Jesus, full of movement and adventure and sometimes-disorienting flux. Life is not easy, and its twists and turns and challenges change us deeply. Christians believe that Jesus, who is consistent and faithful in character but always more complex and multifaceted than we can wrap our minds around fully, invites us to walk with him through times when everything is going well and times when our worlds and identities are falling apart. The times when our sense of identity is unstable are opportunities to stumble around to find a rock to stand on that is more solid than ourselves. Identity in via is not something to be feared but something to be embraced, in the context of the all-encompassing, gracious-without-condition, love of God.
How might such an “identity-ing” process work in our lives? In John 15:1-11, Jesus claimed to be the “true vine” in which we, the branches, must abide in order to bear fruit. In this metaphor, God is the vinegrower who removes some branches because they do not grow fruit and prunes other branches so that they will be able to grow more fruit. Maybe parts of our identity are pruned by God like a gardener prunes a tree so that it will grow more healthily and produce more fruit in the future – even though sometimes this pruning leaves the plant looking for a while like a sad, bare stump. In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 the apostle Paul writes that those who seek to know and see Jesus are gradually transformed to be more and more like Jesus, “from one degree of glory to another”; perhaps sometimes this transformation feels glorious, shining and joyful, and other times it just feels like being pruned, painful and confusing.
To draw a similar analogy from something closer to my own daily experience than vine pruning, last fall I joined a swim team, and more recently I started doing “dryland” workouts with the team (which is what swimmers call a normal workout outside of the pool). It might not be visually obvious – which is fine, since my goal is good health rather than swoleness – but it’s clear to me that I’m quite a bit stronger now than when I first started. However, on any given day it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m getting stronger. Working out a particular muscle group forms micro-tears in those muscles, which eventually leads to the body adapting and making the muscles stronger so as better to handle similar stresses in the future – which is great in the long term, but in the short term it often just feels stiff and sore. What if the painful ways in which our identity morphs and twists over time are like micro-tears in the fiber of our being that offer the opportunity to heal stronger?
If our identities are in process rather than static – being pruned and torn, alive and growing, but not without angst and confusion – then the times in which we find, sometimes painfully, that our identities are being continually formed and re-formed, need not surprise us. Jesus said that those who mourn will be comforted, and so Christians believe that God enters into our times of grieving former identities lost and current identities confused and calls us blessed in the midst of it because God is present with us. If we push into this process of identity-ing and the often-accompanying sense of loss and disorientation with courage rather than push it aside with embarrassment – if we embrace the fluxes of our identity as God-given gifts rather than rejecting them as shameful or undesirable or too confusing – the shifts in our sense of identity can lead us to a deeper understanding of and relationship with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, our Creator and re-Creator.
1 Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 33.
2 Coakley, 40-41.
3 Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 29.
4 Parks, 28-29.
5 Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:22 NRSV
6 Matthew 5:4
Liz Cooledge Jenkins studied Symbolic Systems at Stanford a while ago (class of ’10). She attended Peninsula Bible Church for eleven years before moving to SoCal to work on a Master of Divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary. She enjoys chocolate, the beach, making music, and, as you may have guessed, swimming and boba.Tags: boba, friendship, identity, love, mystery, Sarah Coakley, Sharon Daloz Parks, Stanford University, theology