This is the first post in my series on identity. For an explanation of why I think this is an important issue, see this brief introductory post.
We all struggle with identity, but the particular form that struggle takes is influenced by what we experience in our childhood and teen years. A telling of this part of my story necessarily includes some information that paints family life in a less than flattering light. I want to make it clear at the outset that I’ve no wish to implicate or dishonor my parents in this. They are neat people whom I love very much. They have their own stories with all the complexities that come with navigating life in a fallen world. And they too, have been touched and changed by God.
My purpose in offering this background is only to share my perspective and my responses as they relate to the shaping of my identity.
My parents loved each other they and loved and supported me. They were affirming and affectionate and built many good things into me—for which I am very thankful. However, no matter how many positive factors may be present, long-term exposure to the effects of alcohol-abuse and unhealthy relationships does not usually lend to emotional stability. For my part, I did not know from one day to the next if things would be okay at home (as they often were), or if I would meet with tension, depression, or conflict. Beginning with my pre-teen years, I responded to these factors with an increasing measure of shame and insecurity.
We lived in a fairly small town for a lot of my growing up. My friends, their parents, and others in the community knew about my family’s “problems”…and I was ashamed. I knew there was no such thing as a perfect family—but I’d spent time in other people’s homes—and their “not perfect” sure seemed different than my “not perfect.”
Though I was always provided for, money was often tight. Worried conversations over finances did not miss me. I fretted quietly about these things. I developed a spoiled, but real fixation with the inferiority of my wardrobe. I spent a great deal of energy trying to conceal what I felt was my quite obvious backwardness. My quiet, serious, and contemplative tendencies did not help matters either. These are not bad traits, but let me tell you—they are not celebrated in Jr High and High School. Comparison and inadequacy were my constant companions.
My parents were spiritual. I can’t (and won’t attempt to) summarize the content of their views—only what I observed. Eastern thought (especially yoga philosophy) was read and occasionally discussed at home, along with some of the teachings of Jesus. I paid very little attention to such things for the most part. I subconsciously adopted a very mystical approach to spirituality and a nirvana-ish view of heaven from the Eastern traditions. And as far as the Bible was concerned, I didn’t even know for sure if Jesus was an actual historical figure or just a myth. The little bit of narrative that I did pick up led me to believe that he was a wise teacher (a long time ago) and that the bad guys had killed him. The end.
I did inherit from my parents a deep conviction that this world was no accident—that the intricacies of nature demanded the verdict of intelligent design. This would later prove to be of great benefit to me. At the time, however, I only felt sure there was some sort of divine, omniscient sovereign who was aware of me (even if disinterestedly) at all times. I did not know whether this was a loving and personal God, or a cold creative force, but I was quite certain that I was not a favorite of this being. I had no idea of the standard, but knew that I fell far short.
To summarize: In spite of parental affirmations that I was smart, pretty, valuable, etc., my ability to develop a positive sense of identity through family was somewhat compromised by other factors. Later attempts to define and validate myself through interests, accomplishments, and peer relationships were equally unsatisfying. My spirituality offered me no sense of personal meaning or purpose. Something inside told me that I had beauty and value, but much of my experience screamed that I was inferior and insignificant. This was the beginning of a long and desperate quest to discover who I was and what made me worthwhile.
That’s a little background. In the next installment I plan to discuss some major life changes that ultimately redirected my search for identity down a theological path.