“What do we find our identity in?” If I were to identify one thing that has played into the overall narrative of my life the most, I would say it is this very concept. “What am I about?” “What is my identity wrapped up in?” Discovering and rediscovering what my identity is NOT has been at the center of most of my more painful life experiences.
Perhaps you can relate to these moments and make a list for yourself? Here’s how I remember it:
As a young boy growing up in a Christian home, I learned what NOT to do almost more than I learned what TO do. I learned very early that I would be met with smiles and pats on the head if I perform all of the functions that a “good boy” was to do. From age 0-12, I understood my role and I played it well. There was very little that changed for me even between 12-18 years of age… as far as my role was concerned. I was still supposed to be a “good boy” in my family’s eyes, but I also realized that I had peers watching me now as well. My peers expected me to be funny, interesting, talented… or I wasn’t worthy of their time. We all go through this to varying degrees.
I had been home-schooled up until half-way through seventh grade… I can’t think of a worse time to enter public school. Have you ever heard of polar bear plunges? It’s sort of like that except you don’t get to get out of the water for two years… and even when you do get out, there isn’t someone standing there with a big, dry, fluffy, warm towel for you.
As I made my way through High school, I was in a lot of sports activities. I had grown up with a lot of years of recreational soccer leagues, my extended family played tennis, we liked to swim, bicycle around the neighborhood, and I continued these in addition to wrestling in high school. I went through my growth spurt, got stronger and faster, and started to identify myself as an athlete. My older brother was always a smart cookie, and I wasn’t too far behind, but I gave up trying to compete at intellectual pursuits. My father was an athlete and I strongly took after him in many ways. I knew I wasn’t the best, but I was pretty solid, and that was good enough for me.
After my parents separated/divorced in my senior year of high school, I moved to Washington with my mom and sister. I was leaving the friends I had grown up with and moving to be near my beloved extended relatives. I was familiar with the area (was born in Washington and holidays were often spent on vacation to see these family members), but vacationing for 1-3 weeks is not at all the same as long term living. People go back to their own lives and you’re left to figure out your own in the new area. I had been a night owl for a long time, staying up late playing video games or chatting online with friends. This was not met with approval by my grandfather; whom my mother, sister, and I were staying with. I also didn’t have a job yet, and was unenthusiastic about college (though I knew it was expected of me) because of all of the recent life changes (parents’ divorce, moving, lack of close friend connections in the new place). My grandfather and I had a handful of confrontations and my mother was the stressed out middle-woman in the interactions. I remember pulling my mother aside one evening to privately breakdown crying in front of her and express my frustration in that being a “good boy” didn’t seem to matter anymore. At age 20, I needed more than just obedience and athletic success to make those around me happy with me.
Good boy… shattered.
There weren’t as many guys in the church group I was involved in up there. The girls were the ones who had the time to hang out more and were happy to spend time together. This was alright at first, but the athlete in me was drastically under-used. These girls weren’t trying to play soccer, run, throw a frisbee, or do any of those types of things with any regularity; so it was very frustrating to me because I couldn’t be “who I felt I was”. As is the way for many people after high school / college… they don’t keep up with their extra curricular sporting activities because it takes dedicated effort to continue it. You don’t get to automatically see your friends every day of the week and you don’t have a place to just automatically get together with a team of guys all wanting to play soccer, for example. At the age of 31, I am still fairly fit, but my physical stamina is not like it used to be, and I so rarely get to play a sport or do something truly athletic that I can’t legitimately place my identity in it anymore.
I still had my pride, though. Pious pride. I managed to stay virgin until I got married at the age of 27. I felt like at least I was pure. I had fooled around before that, but I was proud to say that I was still virgin at the time… because I still cared about that… though I had no perspective of why it was so important in the end. My first wife and I had saved our virginity for each other, which was noble, but it ultimately didn’t keep us together. I had felt like I’d gotten a raw deal… I’d waited my whole life to have sex, and when the time came for us to get it on… we had built up a myriad of walls and dysfunctional behaviors which prevented us from being able to enjoy it. We were so naive and sheltered. We were selfish and didn’t know what to expect from marriage. We had spent our whole lives waiting… anticipating… developing odd, unrealistic views about what marriage and sex would be like. I fully accept my part of the blame in this and I openly admit that I didn’t handle it well at all. I reverted to seeking out familiar sources of pleasure which didn’t include my wife. This was familiar, comfortable, and it felt safe to me. Meanwhile, it destroyed my marriage.
(although, to be totally honest, I’d shattered this one long before this point… but this was the pinnacle… the “crowning achievement” of my shame at that point in my life)
After revealing the truth of this to her, we separated. Spent the next 14 months crying, striving, and working my ass off to try to make things right. It wasn’t enough. It was a major life disappointment, but life went on even after being served divorce papers. I will grant her that she wanted things to heal… that she wanted the happy ending… turns out it wasn’t going to be with me. I just hope that she’s still in the process of finding her happy ending wherever life takes her. I had to press on and try to find my own happy ending still, since it apparently wasn’t going to be found with her.
Life hasn’t stopped and I’ve made some major changes. I’m trying hard to think of any other false or fleeting places that I’ve placed my identity upon; but I think part of the reason these shattered areas were so tragically momentous to me is that I hadn’t realized I had placed so much of myself within them. If I could have anticipated that “good boy“, “athlete“, and “purity” were going to be so temporal… it wouldn’t have hurt so much when they came to an end. I wonder what my next shattering will be.
The one standing identity that I identify with that hasn’t shattered is: Child of God. It is of great comfort to know that one won’t shatter; no matter how much I botch things up.