Who are you?
She was a chirpy lady who had only seen me for a few days as she came in and out of the office during my second week in the new job. I thought it was a rather peculiar question to ask a new colleague, not just that, but to ask colleagues, while I sat there with them all! She was not a member of my team and she sits in an inner corner of the office. I don’t get to see her unless I walk past on my way to the kitchen. She was not only chirpy but also a bouncy and extremely extroverted character and her personality explained away her rather offensive approach to an introduction.
My response was to turn to my colleagues, in a failed attempt to swallow the offence, crack a smile and try to make light of it all. I asked them “Yea, that’s true, who am I?”. The enquirer was not fooled, she gave a withering look, upon which (and as I had been told she was a much senior colleague – a section director) I told her my job title, explained I was new to the organisation and what role I expected to fulfil in my team. She welcomed me and off she went.
For many of us, just like me, telling people “who we are” at work is not a problem, we have a job title, a job description, a line of reporting and we can frame our identity within these parameters. The same is true sometimes for when we are at home, we can define ourselves by the family we belong to – “I am Sara’s mum” … “I am Jane’s husband” … “I am Dr Jones’s father”. We could even have significant roles we play in our communities, whether formal roles or informal ones that we can introduce ourselves by. All these are perfectly legitimate descriptions. In fact it is a blessing to be able to do so.
What I have realised is that there are times when these identities may not be enough to help us define who we are and we can struggle to get on our feet with confidence, knowing how we are defined and what does not define us. These times of helplessness are not limited to the vulnerable and the weak, some of the strong personalities I have met often struggle with self identity.
In this blog, I will like to focus on what does not define us and hopefully by approaching this way we may understand the concept and each person can then work out what defines them.
We are not defined by the negatives of our past: struggles – financial, health, emotional, relational – that we faced in the past do not define who we are. Just because we have been poor or lacking the resources that we expected to have, does not mean we are perpetually doomed to be that person who never has enough, who has to scrimp and save and always has to sit for precious hours counting the pennies. Someone who felt lacking in the past may go the whole hog of greed trying to grab as much as they can or they may become overly arrogant in their new found status and forget to temper their new “power” with wisdom, and humility. They may still hold very dear the little idiosyncrasies of the past as they hold on to the poverty mentality that had previously helped ground them in the reality of their situation. They may totally forget to uproot themselves from the old and replant themselves in their new reality.
We might have been emotionally bruised and relationships might have turned sour when the last thing we wanted was to let go of them. The hurt of the past may mean for some people carrying the belief that nobody can truly love them or pushing genuine love away because of the fear of abandonment, rejection or failure, but each day is a new day with renewed grace, mercy and hope. Without healing and moving on in the hope and trust for the future, good relationships will be lost.
Someone who had suffered so much with their health may give up on looking after themselves or preserve and care for their body because a deep root has gone down, the unconscious believe that such care is futile and as a result may become clumsy and suffer accident after accident. Others may become overly fearful and every little symptom may appear as death knocking on the door.
We are not defined by the abuse of the past: this is a big and unfortunate one. Any type of abuse is damaging – sexual abuse, psychological and emotional abuse, physical abuse, verbal abuse. All of them have emotional and physical effect on the victim. But the greatest tragedy will be never getting over it. Sometimes, our lives will look very good to the outside world while on the inside, we suffer with lack of self worth. The abuser took some of that worth, some of the value with them when they came (“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” John 10:10). You may wonder sometimes “why me?” “What have I done to deserve this?” You might have even managed to convince yourself that it was your fault, it must have been because of something you did and you might have gone as far as identifying one or a myriad of things that you believe is the legitimate reason why it was you he or she picked to abuse. There may or may not be elements of truth in that but ultimately the abuser was only showing what they are made of or their own lack of understanding of who they are. They basically chose to give themselves the “abuser” identity.
We are not defined by our career or job: If you define ourselves by the job you do, the day someone, a mistake or a failure manages to convince you that you are not as good at the job as you had thought, is the day you will crumble and your self confidence and self worth will take a quick tumble. Your job is something you do, your career is a path you have embarked on and wish to follow for however long you choose to follow it. It has a lot of benefits, not least of which is the ability to pay your monthly (or how often they come) bills and the fulfilment that comes from doing something you enjoy doing and making a difference in the world or making a contribution to the society.
We are not defined by the family we come from: someone with a great family gene pool, popular or helpful and caring family may find this difficult to get their head around but I bet someone from a family of supposed “losers” may also find it difficult a concept to grasp. Our families give us a great sense of belonging and where things are awry, this sense of belonging may be shaken but either way we cannot afford to define ourselves by our father, mother, husband, wife, daughter, son, siblings or cousins. They are people in our lives to love, cherish and share life with and they also have to do the same, but they are far from being who we are.
We are not defined by our mistakes: Sometimes we do the dumbest things and make the most awful choices, not that we know we are doing so at the time (at least not always!), but hindsight is a wonderful thing; we can look back and cringe at some of the things we have said and done. However, no matter how embarrassing, shameful, damaging our mistakes are, we are more than capable of starting again – each day is a new day with renewed grace, mercy and hope.
We are not defined by the names we have been called: this is especially true of the negative things that may have been said over us in the past, whether by parents in the moments when they threw good judgement out of the window and chose to act otherwise than in wisdom. It may be the bad names and unhelpful declarations by teachers and tutors in school and college. Have you been told you are no good, good for nothing? Names could be powerful things, there was a man in the Bible named Jabez which interpretation is pain. All his parents saw when they gave birth to him was pain and they named him accordingly. But Jabez cried to God to change his fortune so that he will no longer be pain to anyone but a blessing and the Bible recorded that God granted his request. The man Israel, whom the country of the Jews is named by, was previously called Jacob, which means a supplanter, a backstabber, a schemer; when he met with God in a dream, God gave him a different name. You too can have a different name to replace the bad one you may have been given.
We are not defined by our physique: describing someone by their physique is the easiest way to physically identify them. You could hear something like, “go to the fourth floor and he is the short, plump, about middle-aged, blond man you will find sitting by the window, he is difficult to miss…”. It certainly is helpful when someone has distinct physical features that can help pick them out of a crowd, if doing so is crucial to your mission. But this does not define the essence of the man, it is just what he looks like on the outside. And now I hear someone saying, the physique matters! It does matter in some instances – it helps if your spouse finds your physique attractive, or when the girl or boy you’ve got your eyes on think you are the most beautiful thing on earth, but remember beauty is very subjective and as they say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder!”
I can go on and on about the things that we are not defined by, but I hope that by now you get a gist of the message, that the negative experiences and even some of the positives do not define us. I will encourage you to give thought to what you think should define you as a person, what is the lasting, enduring, solid ground, unshakable truth that you can plant your feet on and never be shaken – in there lies the best identity you can give yourself; you need to believe it, abide and live by it.