An exploration of self-identity and what it means to be yourself
By: Taylin Im
At Brown, I have felt an increasing pressure to know who I am. Identity is huge, and yet, only we know our own identities. How can anyone else know you better than you? We constantly categorize people in our heads: science, humanities, political, religious, artistic, musical, athletic, academic, creative, liberal, conservative. The lists go on, and again and again I am guilty of labeling, to a degree, only to get to know people and take back first impressions and inconclusive judgments. Maybe there is more to knowing yourself than your own individual thoughts and behaviors. I believe that our identity is inclusive of our surroundings and the people we know, even as far as to say that how people perceive us is also a part of how we identify ourselves. However, I know that regardless of these external influences that help shape who we are as people, there is something that is inherently personal and unique to each one of us. Things that come naturally, that feel “right” to us, that work. For me. This is a little different than holding up pleather jeggings and saying, “This is so not me,” preferring Sprite to Coke, or enjoying romantic comedies to horror films. This is the difference between who you are when you are alone in your room and who you are when you are interviewing for college; who you are when you look in the mirror, and who you are when you are in the car with all your friends blasting Taylor Swift out open windows.
So what is identity anyway? What makes you, you? Or is identity no more than some sort of social construct with a subjective component that we can simply mold to fit what or who we want to be? We hear and see so often that “nobody can do you better than you” or that the best thing to do is to “just be yourself.” But I ask you, what does it mean to be you? Maybe you know this and refer back to the list of adjectives you thought up back when colleges asked you to describe yourself. Maybe you define yourself more loosely, or have no definition at all because why would you reduce yourself to a mere description? Who we are is more than what we like or dislike. Who we are is an accumulation of our beliefs, our actions, our words, our friends and family, our accomplishments and our mistakes. Given that we are constantly changing, the notion of “identity” implies that something, however, is indeed constant about us.
So what is this something? Maybe you identify through religion. This is not true for everyone, but if you believe your identity is somewhat determined by your actions and behavior and if your beliefs affect how you view and respond to the world, then maybe there is a hint of consistency and validity in this making up an important part of your identity. Are you proud of what you believe, or do you prefer to hide it unless it is brought up? If you were to tell people what you believed, would you be able stand up and defend your identity to others, or are you doubting or embarrassed? And so we run into this problem–this inability to defend our identity–often with Christianity. Many of us are aware of the connotations or ideas of what it means to be a Christian, especially on a campus that is so diverse and involved in world issues. In people’s minds, Christians might be kind and charitable, judgmental and intrusive, or anywhere in between. Most have encountered Christianity either personally or indirectly, and it is only natural to take into account these experiences when characterizing our idea of Christianity and then applying it towards people who claim it as part of their identity. So again, after all the pain and damage Christians have done to their name, why would anybody want to identify as a Christian?
Admittedly, I have had my own share of angst and “rebellion” against religion as an institution. Christianity, identity, favorite food; what isn’t a spectrum nowadays? I believe that our identities are multidimensional, but which dimensions do we take into account when questioning one’s identity? Personally, I don’t have all the answers to my own identity figured out, but I do know the most important part of my identity: I choose to identify with Christ. This is not because of the name or because the people around me believe in God, but rather because of what I believe, which is in a God that loves us unconditionally. That God is bigger than anything we can ever imagine is enough for me to recognize that my own knowledge is insufficient and limited, and that with our capacity to love, differentiate good from evil, and continuously discover what we didn’t know yesterday today, we are living proof of God’s power and love. Of course, this theological debate of whether God exists or not can go on and on, but in my relatively short life, I have seen that both sides are capable of supporting their beliefs enough to satiate the biases, and so I believe that “evidence” can only go so far with how little we really do know. Rather, for me, what it comes down to is not realizing how many “hard facts” each side can produce, but the hope and reality that if what the Bible says is true, we have a God who is love, big enough to cover our sins with the sacrifice made on the cross. And who am I to deny an eternity with my Creator?
I have to admit, however, that although I can logically “reason” myself through why I should want to identify with Christ, that is not ultimately the case for why I choose to follow Him. Perhaps my upbringing has a lot to contribute as I was raised in a Christian family, and as I’ve learned about God throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to discover new facets of who He is. Though I know that living a life like Christ is the hardest path in this world, I know that as I understand more of what Jesus did for us and His true character, I cannot deny His identity and His sovereignty simply because I don’t like or agree with how many Christians today portray God. God is not the people of this world, no matter how often we link the religion with the church or the faith with its people. I know we all fall short of the glory of God, and to expect people to be my example of God’s nature is partially blindsided and misled. We are all imperfect, and because of that, we must rely on God’s sacrifice and mercy to overcome our faults. This is not to say that we cannot go to other people for support or guidance, but simply that they are not God, and so to reject God because of others’ actions or interpretations is not as wholesome as we often may believe. Even in my own walk, I have stumbled and fought against what I was brought up to believe, but to fight against Jesus, I know, is selfish and only results in more pain and regret than I could have imagined. Thus, this may not be a faith of comfort or safety in the typical sense, but one that recognizes God because of who He is rather than because of what He can and has done for me.
Sure, we all have a list of qualities or beliefs that “identify” us, but maybe in contemplating my own identity, I realized the importance of importance. Priorities underlie all of who we are, and maybe those priorities are what differentiates us from each other. For many Brown students, I think I can safely say that our education is important to us. Maybe our relationships come before school, or vice versa. Our futures, our goals and our dreams define us if they are high in our priorities. Why we are doing the things we do or why we think the things we think comes from an inherent prioritization. Maybe you care what people think about you, and maybe you disregard social norms altogether. All these things make up parts of who you are. But while there is arguably an “inherited” quality to our own identities, we do have a say in who we become and how we identify in the way we prioritize our lives. And whether God is the most important in your life, non-existent in your mind or somewhere in between, does make a universal difference in who you are.
Art by Esther Hong.