As I have paid attention to the range of conversations over the years, I conclude there may be two fundamental human questions. I am sure others could argue there are many other fundamental human questions. Of course, many might agree with my two questions. Right now I posit these two.
The first fundamental human question asks, “who am I?” Essentially, this is the human question of identity. I can’t tell you for sure when kids begin to ask that question. But I suspect it is earlier than many of us assume. I know psychologists talk about stages of human development and that makes sense to me. Let’s pick up human development at the teenage years, since this is when I first encounter students in college. College is a time when people normally are “redoing” their identity.
This does not mean people who are college-age disregard entirely their former identities---although this occasionally happens. More often than not, it means the people this age are able to form an identity on their own. Perhaps for the first time, they are free to start thinking about “who am I” on their own terms. They are able to begin the process to be the person they want to be. They usually are free not to be solely the person their parents want them to be or other authority figures (or peer figures) want them to be.
It is not unusual for some folks to delay this process until middle age or even later. Many of us spend almost a lifetime being the person other people want us to be---spouses, our kids, our co-workers. Hopefully all of us have a chance to be free enough to become the person we are meant to be.
As a spiritual person, I would add one more piece to identity. I think the person we are meant to be is actually the person God wants us to be. Writers on spirituality refer to this person as the “true self.” I am happy to talk about the true self as our “real self” or our “authentic self.” The language is not crucial here. What is crucial is the chance for us to be the authentic person we can be. I argue this person is also the person (the self) God want us to be.
I could put it this way: my true self is the authentic person I want to be which is simultaneously the person God wants me to be. This sounds like the answer to the key question, who am I? The corollary question, then, becomes: how do I manage this true self? What is the process by which I become my true self?
No doubt, the answer is complex. However I think there are two facets of the process. I will need to give particular attention to my own sense of who I want to be. I probably need to spend some time in prayer, meditation or some form of seeking what God’s sense of my identity might be. There are other resources, like the Bible and tradition, that offer good clues to shaping our spiritual identity. To spend a little time doing this is counter-cultural. Most Americans spend little to no time thinking about identity---who am I---in this fashion.
I like to use the language of “process” to describe how the true self is discovered and developed. I don’t think it is an “answer” we find, lock in, and then never worry about again. Identity is typically a process. If I begin to figure out in my 20s who I truly am, that does not mean the answer is the same as when I am in my 40s or 80s. Circumstances change and my identity will reflect the changing circumstances.
For example, at one point I was not a parent, and then I became a parent---twice over in my case. Being a parent came to be part of my identity---part of who I am. Being a parent is part of my true self. That does not bother me.
I actually like the fact that my identity---who I am---evolves and develops. I am a work in progress. My identity is dynamic, not static. My true self is becoming deeper, more profound and more amazing. Perhaps that is a good way to judge whether I am sufficiently engaged in the identity question. Am I becoming deeper, more profound and more amazing? If I am boring, I have some work to do!
Identity is one of the two fundamental human questions. Identity implicates the other human question. Now that I know who I am, what am I to do? More on that one…