Finding Ourselves?

Last week I spent an afternoon with some fellow staff and Relay workers thinking about the issue of identity, with the helpful guidance of Graham Beynon. These jumbled thoughts are a mixed result of that day and some other reading I’ve been doing on the topic of ‘self’. More to follow…

What do we mean by ‘self-image’? Why does it matter so much?

How do you define ‘self’? What is an individual? A person? Who has the answer to these questions? Does anyone?

How has post-modernism impacted our understanding of identity and self-image? What difference does it make to have all the ‘reliable’ reference points and tidy definitions ripped out from under our feet?

How do we ‘create’/end up with our self-image?

Some attempts at beginnings of answers follow, but they’re very vague and unfinished… please do add your comments!

When people say ‘self-image’, I imagine they’re basically talking about their understanding or idea of who they are, what makes them… well, them! That’s an interesting thought – that there is something that we all recognise to be ourselves, that we can say ‘Who am I?’ and that is a meaningful question to everyone… Famously, Rene Descartes used this self-awareness as a starting point, a solid foundation (or so he thought!) for constructing an understanding of the world around him. And to some extent, we still follow in his stead, despite all the advances of post-modern thinking on our culture. “I think therefore I am.” Trouble is, nobody knows who ‘I’ is anymore. (Ouch! Grammar and philosophy struggling there…) How much of the person I seem to be is actually me, and how much is external influence, a result of my culture, my up-bringing, my education… the list of influences goes on the longer we live. We end up in a struggle, a battle against every outside force that seeks to curb our freedom to be. Can we ever strip away all those external factors and get back to what, essentially, we are? Before any of that takes it’s toll on our identity?

What if stripping away the external influences is not the solution, though? It doesn’t seem to get us far… What is the quantifiable, definable thing that is me? Who am I? People head off to foreign countries to detach themselves from the familiar, try new experiences, re-invent themselves to discover what stays the same… Does it work?

There is no ‘I’. There is no ‘you’. Either we’re autonomous individuals who determine everything for ourselves, with reference to no one or nothing, or we’re nothing, and ‘I’ is an illusion, and the sooner we embrace it, the better.

If those were the only options, life would be bleak. Relationship would be power-plays or utterly meaningless illusions. What an ugly world.

At the risk of sounding like it’s all about balance (not a fan of the word!), perhaps these two options are what we’re left with when we take things too far… Why do we resist the idea of anyone having any meaningful influence on us? Is that always a negative thing? Why do we run from the idea of being different from one another? Does that always leave us alone and isolated?

What if, as a person, I am not meant to be completely isolated and independent – but that the very core of who I am is meant to be understood in reference to others? And if that ‘influence’ was receiving love, being known?

I think this is something to do with what being made in God’s image  is about. It can’t just mean I am valuable. It doesn’t just mean I’ve been given reason, intellect or rationality. Those things are true, but fundamentally who God is will shape what it means to be made in His image, and there is nothing more fundamental to say about God than that He is a communion of the Father eternally loving His Son in the power of the Spirit. Being made in His image means being made for relationships – with Him and with others. So loving, being known, giving of ourselves and meeting one anothers needs isn’t just futile power play, self-indulgent manipulation nor an illusion to be shaken off – it’s part of what it is to be a person. Maybe it’s not a case of finding ourselves so much as being given our identity; loved and free to give to others.

I know that this doesn’t wrap up all the questions, and there’s lots I still haven’t linked up in my mind, but perhaps that’s the beginning of answer to ponder over. I’d love to hear what you think: have I gone wrong somewhere? Can you see how the slightly disjointed ideas connect up? Anything more you think I should be considering?

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