Who Are You? (Part 1?)

Posted on August 22, 2014


Who are you?  Pete Townsend

Who are you anyway?  Joe Jackson

The world will ask you who you are, and if you do not have an answer, the world will tell you. [1]

I have accomplished next to nothing today.  It is difficult to write that knowing that I intend to put this out on my blog for all to see.  Part of what makes that difficult is my tendency to define myself by what I get accomplished.  I get things done, therefore, I am.  I feel some necessity to qualify the statement by saying that I am writing this on Saturday in the late afternoon.  My wife is out of town, working with her siblings to clean out her late mother’s house.  Apart from the gym, enjoying lunch at Chipotle[2], and going by the car wash, I have not left the house.

I often approach my day with the question, “Tomorrow, what will I wish I had gotten done today?”  Today I started making a list of things that might be fitting answers to that question.  None of them were what I call ice age items.[3] Then I decided I would rather listen to indie tracks on Spotify and play computer games.  I don’t feel bad about that other than it feels embarrassing to tell you that.  I am at a point where I can deny the voice that says that I am defined by what I get accomplished.  At least most of the time, I can.

When I was a counselor at San Diego Hospice, one of the epiphanies that came to me while doing end of life counseling was, “The worst you have done does not define you.”  [4]  In the years since then, I have frequently pulled that line out during counseling.  This still leaves the problem of how one does define one’s self.  Some of the other definitions I have relied on are, “I am punctual,” “I am reliable,” and “I have it together.”  A close friend shared with me that his self-definition has been, “I am helpful.”  The problem with any of these definitions is what happens when you are not ______ (fill in the blank).  What happens when a truck hits the overpass on I-15 at Carroll Canyon and I am going to be late for a meeting.[5]  If my sense of self is tied to my punctuality, this is really distressing.  The virtue about yourself that you cling to may be a really good thing.  It still isn’t who you are; and if it is, you are on shaky ground.

What about if you define yourself by your occupation?  Who are you if you can no longer do your job?  If you define yourself by a relationship or a family role, who are you if that changes?  On an RPG that I was playing, my daughter noticed that I had given my character the name “Daddy” (as I frequently did).  She observed (rather insightfully)[6] that I defined myself by my role as a parent.

I was recently having a discussion with a group of men (some Christian, some not), when the subject of how we define ourselves came up.  Among the ideas that were put forth was the idea that we needed to do enough good to offset our misdeeds.  With regard to this idea, a pastor friend of mine (who was not present for the discussion) has oft quoted Jack Nicholson (as Colonel Jessop in A Few Good Men).  “You want the truth.  You can’t handle the truth.”  The weight of our sin would crush us if we had to look at it all at once.

This idea of doing enough good to cover up our bad is shaky ground.  How do we keep score?  Do different acts (bad or good) have different weights?  Do intentions count?  If I didn’t mean to say something hurtful but I did, do I still need to make up for it?  How can I ever know I have done enough?  Can I be sure if I am the hero or the villain?  Maybe it is like counting cards at the blackjack table.[7]  I am plus 8 for this week.  What a good boy am I?  I am minus 4 year to date.  I need to step it up or I might finish the year in the negative.  Or maybe it’s like your party’s reputation in Dungeons and Dragons.  If you reputation is high enough, people welcome you wherever you go, leave their doors unlocked, tell you secrets, and hand you magic items.  If it gets low enough, they attack you on sight.

In my practice, I work with sex addicts.  One step in healing the marriage, when there has been sexual acting out outside of the relationship, is having the partner write a cost letter.  This is essentially a letter to the addict describing what the addict’s acting out has cost the partner (emotionally, relationally, spiritually, physically, etc.).  The addict needs to be prepared by the therapist to be able to hear the cost to their partner from a place of empathy.  Consequently, I get the cost letter before the addict gets to hear it or see it.  I take the addict through it a small amount at a time.  To hear it all at once would be crushing.  We need to battle against shame and promote empathy so that this can be a healing process for both addict and partner.  You are not your addiction.  You are not your acting out.  The worst you have done does not define you.  Shame is the enemy; empathy is the healer.

Does the best we have done define us?  From Sly Stone singing, “Everybody is a star” to Supertramp suggesting, “If you know who you are, you’re your own superstar” to Katy Perry asserting, “Baby, you’re a firework” this seems like a popular position.  By this view, not only are we defined by our best, but we all have unlimited potential.  I suspect that there is an inverse relationship between age and how much that message resonates with you.  Experience has a way of making us more life size.

So I am rambling.  This post is getting longer than most people are willing to read, and I need to take it somewhere.

One of the nice things about being a Christian is that it resolves the issue here.  Our value and our identity is imputed rather than earned.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made.  You are beloved.  You are under grace.  You are accepted, secure, and significant.  Not only does the worst you have done not define you, but you have been justified.[8]

When my kids were little, I think it was Disney Channel that was putting out some new adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  In one episode, Pooh and his friends were feeling worthless because a new toy (Bruno the Gorilla – a gift intended for Christopher Robin’s friend) could do so many things better than they could.  Christopher Robin reassured them that “I love you for who you are, not what you can do.”

So…Who are you?

[1] I could not find the source on a web search.  If you know, let me know.

[2] 90 degrees, got my carnitas burrito, my diet coke, my Sudoku, and my Nook.  I am pretty sure this is what lunch is like in heaven.  “A little of what you fancy does you good. ” Ian Anderson.

[3] That is something that would result in the Earth being plunged into an ice age if I did not get it accomplished.

[4] I have counseled many at the end of life who were haunted by their misdeeds and their traumata.  Often this was out of proportion compared to their positive contributions in life.

[5] Hypothetically speaking J

[6] And I am the therapist.

[7] Most of which I learned from the movie, “21,” so I may have it all wrong.

[8] You may still be coping with the consequences.