Identity and Relationship
Recently I have been leading a group that is using the classic book, Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Originally published in the mid-1950s, this book has stood well the test of time. It is dated in some ways. Reading it again makes me aware of how our American culture has changed. The role of women, of marriage and other things have undergone significant change since the mid-20th century. And yet so much of the book is timely and, even, timeless. There are still nuggets of wisdom and profundity that make me delighted to read it again.
At one point, the group focused on chapter IV, “Double-Sunrise.” I really don’t know much about shells, except to know that I like them and like to pick up shells when I am at the beach. But I have never been an “ocean person,” so am very much the novice. Lindbergh describes the double-sunrise shell in this fashion. “Both halves of this delicate bivalve are exactly matched. Each side, like the wing of a butterfly, is marked with the same pattern; translucent white, except for three rosy rays that fan out from the golden hinge binding the two together.”
With this wonderful description embedded in my mind, I read on in the chapter. It was readily apparent the chapter was focusing on relationships. Lindbergh talked about relationships with spouses and with kids. Relationships with friends played a role. I have known for a long time that I am fascinated by relationships. Like most folks my age, I have had some good relationships, some long relationships and some lousy relationships. While this reading was interesting, I did not find it new.
At some point, however, I realized Lindbergh had introduced another major theme into the chapter. This theme was about identity. Again, I know that I have given a great deal of attention to the issue of identity. When I was in my twenties, I knew I was hard at work forming my own identity. In retrospect I also know that I did not finish this identity-work in my twenties. For all I now, I am still forming my identity.
It then occurred to me that Lindbergh’s writing had given me a new way to think about things. In effect she was asking me to think about the connection between identity and relationship. I am sure they are connected---perhaps very closely connected. But I realized that I had not thought much about it. I must have thought about each one independently.
Let’s look at two types of relationships that clearly have a formative effect on our identity. It is obvious that our parents have a huge role in forming us. Our relationship with our mothers (or primary caregiver) is perhaps the most important formative influence. In fact, those of us lucky enough to be born into a loving, caring home have huge advantages the rest of our lives. If we are unlucky to be born into homes where there is little love and, perhaps even, abuse, the identity forming process is much more difficult. But it does not condemn us to be “nobodies.” It is just harder.
The second kind of relationship I want to consider is the relationship possible with God or the Holy One. For those of us on the spiritual journey, this also can become the primary relationship. It can become the most powerful formative influence on our identity. In fact, I think of the monks who enter the monastery. That relationship becomes so formative that they take on a new name to befit their new identities.
When I enter into a relationship with the Holy One, I am not going to get a new name. However, I will start to become a new being. Christian literature will talk about us becoming “new persons.” In biblical language we die to the old self and become a new self. Thomas Merton uses language of the “false self” and “true self.” Whatever the language we might use, the fact of the matter is we all have a chance to become a new, different person.
In the Spirit we are remade. I do not see my life predestined. I am not red meat for the whims of Fate. I was created in the image of the Holy One and I have the free will to choose the kinds of relationships that can shape me into the spiritually mature person that can make a huge difference in the world. In the Spirit I become a “somebody.” I become somebody who makes all the difference. I become a plus in the world and not a minus!
I like to put it simply: with whom I am affects who I am. In other words, the people (or God) with whom I am affect the person I become. The good news is, it is never too late to begin this spiritual formative process. Learn what it means to enter into a relationship with the Holy One. Choose to associate with and become friends with the friends of God. Who you are is affected by the one with whom you are.