I’ve begun to pay close attention to the answer someone gives when asked, “Who are you?” For most of us have no honest answer whatsoever to the question. We are skillfully adaptive; as emotional chameleons, we will become what others want us to be. Thus, we lose any sense of self-identity.
Certainly, this is a coping mechanism. In order to get what we feel we need from others, we contort ourselves into the form that will please them. All the while, the real person beneath all those years of coping, bargaining, and striving begins to disappear. Or, we choose a part that gives us some kind of validity, and we never let this role go. Our job, nationality, political affiliation, or hobby: These superficial roles can overtake who we rally are.
Consider how many middle-aged men who are in a wretched condition because they are no longer the young, athletic, studs on campus. That was their identity, and now it is gone. How many middle-aged women traverse land and sea, spending a war pension to hold on to those cheerleader looks and bodies from thirty years earlier? They must hold to that identity or they feel they are lost.
I can illustrate this with an amusing story from one of my sons. When he was young, he had a short but intense season of life where he wanted to be – he was in his mind – Buzz Lightyear. He had the costume left over from Halloween, and wanted nothing more than to wear it all the time. It was sweet and fun as he bounced and blasted around the room, until it was bath time.
“No, you can’t take a bath as Buzz Lightyear. You have to take the costume off…No, you can’t be Buzz Lightyear at school. It will distract the other students…No, you can’t wear the Buzz Lightyear costume to Aunt Inez’s funeral.”
What happened to him when he had to give up that identity? He wept and wailed as if it was the end of the world! Was he losing his identity? Of course not. The real child was beneath that silly costume – a costume that became more ill-fitting with every day – and everyone could see this; everyone, that is, except him.
That story is parabolic, for we all cling to costumes and masks that we falsely believe make us who we are. The falsity must go; our costumes must be stripped away; so that we – the real us – that God has so wonderfully and fearfully made can again spring to life. Or, stated more accurately, so that the true person can come to life for the first time.
Jungian analyst James Hollis offers this cure: “You are here to be yourself, not through selfish injury to others, but in humble service to that possible person you are intended to be. It will be up to you to find the courage, and the persistence, to live this out, as best you can.”