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Who Are We? A Existential Rambling From A Novelist Who Should Probably Know Better

Who are we?

What is our identity?

These are big questions that haven’t been fully answered by the wisest men. But I’d like to suggest that we are more than our genders, more than our hobbies, more than our avatars, more than our homes, more than our children, more than our possessions.

Who Are We- An Existential Rambling from a Novelist Who Should Probably Know Better

I ask this because I have always struggled with identity.

I spent a good part of my childhood fighting for attention, fighting for reassurance, fighting for comfort, for safety, for aspirations, for acceptance that exactly who I am is enough. That fight lasted way too long and the addition of titles like wife and mother just made fight more confusing. But I fought anyway.

I needed to know who I was because I had been told so differently. I needed to know who I was so my children could hold their heads up high. I needed to know who I was so when the storms of life battered me, I could be at peace knowing that the foundational truths about who I was remained. It wasn’t until I fully understood that I was enough, that I began to be free. 

And I believe that there is something deep inside of all of us that needs to know — WE NEED TO KNOW WHO WE ARE!

I can tell you the facts about me but that is not enough to fill that deep longing. I can tell you about my heritage and history, but that is not enough to strengthen me for the future. I can tell you about what I own, which isn’t much, but I know from experience how empty possessions can make you feel. I can tell you about how I spend my time, and I get very excited about my project, but they really don’t define me either. It’s more like they are an expression of my identity, but not my identity itself.

Knowing our identities is kind of like going on a treasure hunt. We search our inner wildernesses for that answer. Those who know and who are comfortable in their identities can’t give us clues to our own search. This is journey is a solitary one and it can, at times, be lonely.

We need to know who we are because it is this fact from which we fuel our thoughts. If we believe we are nothing, then we tell ourselves this lie. If we believe that we are worthless, then we repeat that to ourselves. If we believe that what we do has no value, then we are lazy, uninspired, fearful and defeated. If we believe that our identities are elusive, that they are accidental, that they are disposable, then this reveals what we really think about ourselves.

We can’t be happy if we don’t know who we really are.

I believe that our success depends on settling this core truth. I believe that the happiest, most joyful people, know something. I believe they know who they are. Often they can even say it clearly: I am worthy. I am strong. I am put here on this earth for a reason. I am a child of God. I am important. I am valuable. I am loved.

How do we move from having no clue to embracing it?

We have to make a mental choice. This is a battle of our minds. This is a battle that could be gut-wrenching. I know that in my case, I had to literally list everything that was ever spoken to me, “you’re not worth it, you’ll never amount to anything, you’re a nobody, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re just a girl” and defy them all. I had to look those nasty lies in the eyes and exert the force of my being against them. I had to TELL THEM TO GET OUT OF MY HEAD! I had to kick them in the teeth. I had to stare them down. I had to emotionally and mentally attack each one and make them cower in fear.

This took a lot of work. It took months of effort. Many times I wanted to quit. Many  times I wanted to pick up each of those shiny lies and say, “but someone with authority in my life said this to me, so it must be true” and then put the poison back in the pocket of my soul.

Recently psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said this about identities: Because we are nothing special — on a par with ants and daffodils — it is the work of culture to make us feel special; just as parents need to make their children feel special to help them bear and bear with — and hopefully enjoy — their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. In this sense growing up is always an undoing of what needed to be done: first, ideally, we are made to feel special; then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not… When people realize how accidental they are, they are tempted to think of themselves as chosen. We certainly tend to be more special, if only to ourselves, in our (imaginary) unlived lives.

I would like to respectfully disagree with Mr. Phillips.  

What if we ARE something special? What if we’re special not because of our chemistry, nor our history, not our talents, nor our appearance? What if we’re special because we share the goodness of humanity? What if we’re special because we have a longing to aspire to greatness? What if we’re special because we are the only creatures on the planet that creates art? What if we’re special because we are attracted to justice? What if we are special because we want to embrace the honorable? What if we are special because we make feeble attempts to worship? What if we are special because we are baffled by the complexities of life and yet we want to still understand them? What if we are special because our fingerprints indicate that we could be? What if we’re special because of the invisible, intelligent force that organized our bodies, our brains and our souls so magnificently that we are awed by it? What if Adam Phillips is mistaken?

If I choose to believe that I am nothing then I lose hope. As for me, I would rather believe my own “foolishness” and have a hope and joy than believe this so-called truth that Mr. Phillips suggests and have despair.

I have been in the place of nothingness and it is a dark pit that has an endless horror. I don’t want that any more.

This is an existential argument. I’m quite sure I’m oversimplifying it. I am not a philosopher, a psychoanalyst, nor a theologian. But I do know that there is a choice that we all make, on a moment by moment, heartbeat by heartbeat basis. Do we choice hope or do we choose despair? I believe, simply because my own emotional fragility hangs on a thread, that that choice is a critical one. That is the choice that we make when we open our eyes in the morning. It is the one that puts us to sleep at night.

What do you believe?

  • If you believe that you are nothing then you will isolate yourself to evaporate into a void. If you believe that you are worthy then you will look into the eyes of others and speak their worth to them.
  • If you believe that you are nothing, then you will have convinced yourself that your sins are too much. That your punishment is not too great. If you believe that you are something, then you wear grace as a blanket, you confess your sin to others, you are humbled and grateful for forgiveness.
  • If you believe that you are nothing, then you are a slave to laziness and procrastination. They have whispered in your ears that it doesn’t matter what you do or when you do it because life’s futility is a force you can’t reckon with. But if you believe you are valuable, then you know that your efforts, no matter now small, no matter how ignored, are life-giving to someone, somehow and you must be faithful in them.
  • If you believe that you are nothing, you will debase yourself with the things that are destructive. You pick them up even though they destroy you, even though they handicap you, even though they diminish your soul. You abuse them because you don’t believe you deserve better. But if you believe you are valuable, then you look for the clutter, the poison, and the toxicity and you eliminate it from your life. You get help to do this. You admit your weakness. If you believe you are valuable, then you will find courage to face your demons.
  • If you believe that you are nothing, then you will hurt others to make yourself look good. You will point fingers, you will guffaw, you will mock, you will threaten and accuse. You will, by your own dark words, reveal the emptiness in your life. You may alienate those around you — the very ones you say you want to be closer to. But if you believe you are valuable, you will choose peace-making. You will speak kindness. You will offer a hand. You will reveal by your changed life that there is something whole there.
  • If you believe that you are nothing then you believe that you can never change. You will say that you’ve tried, or you at least you’ve claimed to. You will take failure as an excuse to continue to lie in the ditch of failure instead of getting up and stepping out of it. If you believe you are nothing, then you fondle the excuses in your pocket, convinced that they are the talisman to comfort. But if you believe that you are valuable, then you pray for change. You believe nothing is impossible. You seek wisdom. You ask for help. You see that humility and teachability are deceptively strong weapons in your fight for happiness.
  • If you believe that you are worthless then you blame others for your misery. If you believe that you are valuable, then you take responsibility for your own happiness.
  • If you believe that you are worthless then you listen to the siren songs of mindless entertainment too often.  If you believe that you are valuable, then you make disciplined choices in how you spend your time.

I believe I am something amazing, made in the image of God, to do excellent work for others. Believing this makes all the difference.

Who are you?

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.