Defining who I am
Defining who I am
In my last two posts, I spent some time talking about my journey and sharing some of my family histories. It is easy to see how most people see themselves defined by those things. Family and genetics certainly play an essential role in understanding who you are. It's that whole nurture and nature. It isn't easy to separate the two in developing and defining oneself. Yet, there is more to it than just one's personal experience and the DNA that one inherits.
A person's life experiences shape them not only individually but also with whom they engage. Friends, partners, and spouses impact how one sees themselves. I would even suggest that these relationships external to one's family play as much a role in identity as anything else. When children attend school, they spend more time during the school year (typically, pre-Corona virus) with other students, teachers, coaches, and administrators. These people play a role in how one perceives the world and how each person plays in it. Religious, social, and community organizations add another layer of identity to a person. Ultimately, the potential is genetic, and the base is the family, but there is so much more that contributes to how one sees themselves.
Often a person understands who they are not as they feel, but as others reflect them in the interaction of these other people in their lives. Even in the best of families, with the best intentions, sometimes things happen outside their control, or people become essential to a person that reshapes one's identity. Often, a person will reject the definition of who they are given to them by their families or the society and culture around them. Often it is because there are dichotomies between one's self-awareness and the expectations of family and culture.
This confusion is incredibly real for those who do not conform to expected gender roles, sexual orientations, and ethnic heritage. Many people feel that they must define themselves by models and expectations that come from the outside. Even the personal issues of marriage, having children, and moving away from family and communities instituted by others and not the person themselves. This control traditionally comes from religious organizations with a strict moral and ethical code developed centuries and millennia before. These structures developed when safety lay within the boundaries of communities reinforce a sense of identity and security. The intention was to preserve the family and community against outside forces and groups.
This understanding, of course, has never worked. Over the millennia, larger groups of people, conquerors, and empires have subsumed smaller people groups. All that remains of who they were are place names adopted by the invading cultures. The story of human history is told by those who destroyed all that stood in their way. Sometimes the erasure of cultural and ethnic identity is not so overt. There is a more obsequious subtle path as well. Often, the dominant power group's culture presents a preferred example of what is good and right. The mere exposure to this culture by proximity or in modern times by ubiquitous global communication makes these shifts almost invisible until the former traditions and customs become quaint and anachronistic.
Of course, this transition and change are inevitable. As the saying goes, "Everything is temporary." Nothing remains the same. New situations arise, encounters with different people groups, or the need to uproot and relocate all forces to modify traditional cultural and societal norms. This transition, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The melting of the ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere dramatically changed the climate and forced humans to move and reshape how and where they lived. Wars and diseases often change cultures' shape, as does the intermingling of different groups of people. This shift doesn't have to be intentional, but it still changes how people understand themselves.
So why all this? At 61 years of age, I have seen the world change dramatically. Only two years before I was born, the USSR launched the first rocket into space. The technological advancement that followed out of the space race dramatically changed the world's shape, and the expectations of who people should be. Television and the ability to broadcast scenes from the Viet Nam war brought the horrors of the battlefield into the living rooms of those who otherwise might not have thought about it. The computer and telecommunication advancement has broken down barriers to where information is available, with only a few keystrokes. Everyone carries what amounts to a pocket-sized computer.
My grandparents' provincial experiences, living on farms in small rural communities, laid a foundation for how my parents saw themselves and how they raised my siblings and me. My parents' rejection and resistance to these cultural norms laid a foundation of pushing against these very expectations in all of us. Our parents took us to church enculturated in the fundamental moral and ethical tenets of Southern Protestant Christianity. Surrounding us was a generation shaped by their personal experiences with the Great Depression and World War II. Those two events cast great and long shadows over the childhood of people of my generation, even though we did not experience them.
The quest for stability and normalcy was their goal. And like every new generation, our goal was to rebel against it. Even as we rebelled, we could see that those before us understood that the world and culture were changing too fast to hold onto anything for very long. The whole idea of lifelong marriage to the same person, working one career until retirement, even unexamined religious and cultural beliefs became things that were harder to defend and live out. I grew up caught between a generation shaped by traumatic events and one who lives in a world of ubiquitous and invisible technology.
There was no stable cultural ground upon which to position oneself. Many resisted by trying to hold onto beliefs and values no longer relevant. Their demands for non-change also shaped the culture of my childhood. Interestingly, the perception of right and moral was and had always been an illusion. People lived as they chose. They hid what they were doing. Morality was a convenience of social order to control those who had little or no power. Not talking about abuse and violence meant it didn't exist. Horrible things were done and ignored rather than confront the real issues behind the actions.
In my confusion about who I was as a child, I experienced this hypocrisy of morality and social acceptability. I knew who I was and what I wanted. I also knew that if I acted on these things, I would be socially and morally rejected by those around me. And to reinforce this, it was continually impressed upon me how I should act and what I had to do. Constant efforts of my father to get me to date females only compounded my anxiety in trying to live into an identity into which I did not fit. And it wasn't like people weren't aware of this issue in my life. When I moved away from where I grew up, and people knew my family and me, I became more comfortable playing the expected role. It still was challenging; however, if you pretend something long enough, it becomes real.
Challenged in my attempt to explain the struggle I experienced. I am called a liar for attempting to conform to expected norms, gender, and social roles and accused of intentionally deceiving others to harm them purposely. What people who are not me do not understand; these were behaviors developed over time in self-preservation. If I didn't act out on my non-conformity, then maybe I could pass as a cis-gendered straight male. There was always that personal conflict within me. It led to a lot of negative emotions that battered my very soul. I also realize that in my attempt to save myself, I harmed others. Much like drowning and pulling down those who tried to rescue them, these decisions and actions did not take place in isolation and had consequences in the lives of other people. Some people accuse me of being a coward, unwilling to accept my truth and live with authenticity and integrity. And indeed, some tried to help me and times when that decision was a heartbeat away. I was paralyzed with fear and could not let myself escape the prison, telling me I must confine myself. My experience of social rejection and physical, emotional, and even sexual abuse had reinforced this behavior and fear. I could not see myself living as anything other than who I was. I could not be who I wanted to be.
It took me a very long time and much personal emotional turmoil before I came to the place where I said "enough." The challenge then was to convince me that it wasn't too late. I was not too old and too unpracticed in living authentically to pull it off. And somehow, I did. I made that choice, first to live for myself rather than exist merely for the benefit of others. The reality is, if a person believes that they have no value in and of themselves, then they must seek worth from contributing to the well being of others. That can be in a helping profession; oh say, like being a clergy person or a teacher. That may come from being in a relationship living only for a partner to validate them and seek affirmation even at the risk of losing oneself in the process.
This personal codependency is adopted in childhood as a coping mechanism to survive. The recognition of one's dysfunction and addictive personality trait does not make it go away. Much like any other person in recovery, I will always struggle with codependency. My first impulse will be to connect with others in a way that forces them to affirm me and acknowledge my worth. My extroverted personality may result from this or merely exacerbated the desire to look outside of myself for validation. What I do know is I have to set healthy emotional boundaries in relationships intentionally. I must realize that while my actions can affect others and possibly cause harm, I do not control their responses. Neither am I responsible for others' behaviors and choices, no matter how much they blame me.
At this point, who I am and how I define myself is at a turning point. I have delayed this in myself by acting out of events and issues that no longer exist. Now I find myself in my 60s, attempting to be the person I choose to be and live the life I want to live. This decision, too, is difficult. The expectations of those people who are in a person's life often conflict with these very goals. It is as if a person is told, no, you must always be how I have to experience you. This idea, of course, is ridiculous. No one gets to do that. If a person allows that to happen, then one's personhood is taken from them, and there is an attempt to punish them for stepping outside of the box in which others expect one to live.
Of course, I am who I say I am in how I have called myself David since I was 7. I get to tell you how you may address me. If you don't want to call me that, then that is your problem. It has been the challenge of my life to answer the insipid question of what's your real name. My real name is what I call myself. It isn't about anybody else. I didn't choose any of my names and so what I did is to pick the one I liked best. My surname also was not a choice, except that it is. I also enjoy the fact that it can make some people uncomfortable. This effect is less accurate now and in fewer places than earlier when I was a child living in the Bible Belt. I have made it into a bit of a joke. My blog is called "You spell it like the drink" because that's how I tell people how to spell my name.
I know I do not live in a vacuum. I also live in connection with others. As a Christian, I learned about the Communion of Saints. This idea is that all Christians living and the Spirit of God connect dead. It has been easy to expand that thought beyond the parochial boundaries of human religion. Understand that as a creature living on the planet Earth, I am connected to all living things and even to the Earth herself since I made up of the same elements that make up the planet. And by extension, I am a part of and connected to the Universe and everything simply because the very atoms and molecules that make up my physical being existed before they were used to create my body.
There is also a metaphysical connection of essence and energy that informs and indwells me and gives me a sense of self. This understanding is not from outside myself but rather from being self-aware of others' existence and yet knowing that in every way while appearing separate, there is a deep connection on every level. This connection is more than genetic, more than cultural or ethnic. It comes from the awareness that my self-definition comes not from my DNA, my ethnic heritage, the part of the world in which I live. If that were true, then I could not be more than what, where, and when in time, I was. This connection allows me to feel empathy for others, not like me. I can relate to events and places outside of my personal experience. I am even able to overcome and challenge the trauma in my own life. I can draw on others' wisdom who have come before me or even from those who are younger than I—my humanity, or my understanding of myself does not limit the essence of who I am.
Going back to the source that I trained to use, I use the words of my faith tradition. Humans are in the image of the Divine. Designed to be like the Divine, to reflect the Divine, and ultimately to exist as the Divine manifested in human flesh. The Incarnation is a way of understanding that there is no separation between our humanity and the Divine. The Divine became like us because we are like the Divine. We perceive a physical and experiential difference, but that is merely an illusion of time and space. The essence of our humanity and the creative forces of the Universe (or the Divine) is the same. There cannot be any real separation. Just like water or air can be put in different containers, it does not change the nature or essence of either. The continuity of our being part of the whole is not interrupted by being present in a physical body, merely a part of the entire being temporarily contained in a particular form to ultimately be released back into the whole.
When understood in human language, this cosmic essence defined itself in the phrase I am. The understanding that this "Being" expresses the sense of everything. This understanding is not a new concept or original to me. Better scholars, theologians, and mystics have said it in more eloquent ways. The truth of it is evident and apparent. Coming to this understanding may have taken a long time. This knowledge is freeing. My physical being's limitations, genetic and ethnic identity, or even my thoughts and emotions do not define who I am. As I move forward in becoming all of who I am, I know that everything about me at this point is simply an expression of the Universe and a manifestation of the intent of that same creative force. There is no brokenness, unacceptability, or even disconnection from the whole. To borrow the words of the writers of Exod