How do you know who you are? From the moment we are born, we take in clues around us that help shape who we are. We learn that our mother will feed and nurture us and that our father will protect us. Our perspectives continue to be shaped by the language and culture in which we grow up. And, as we mature, we take on a belief system, moral, religious, political, etc., that continues to shape the way in which we interact with the world. All of these aspects shape our identity. Still, it continues to morph through the different stages of life, as we encounter new people and ideas, and as we have new experiences. If our identity as an individual continues to change, one might ask, “Then, who am I?” Thankfully, we as Christians have a sure answer to that question, which can be found in Christ Jesus.
The philosophical school of phenomenology provides a background through which we can understand where our identity comes from. Jean-Paul Sartre, a 20th century French philosopher, describes a relationship between the self and, what he calls, “the Other” in his book Being and Nothingness. The self has a being for-itself, or his own self-defined identity, and a being-for-Others, how others in the world “gaze” on him. The Other’s gaze objectifies the self and defines the self by how the Other perceives him from the outside. To an extent, the self’s subjectivity is denied as he becomes an object of the Other. And, the self can start to believe and take on the identity defined by the Other.
When based on the whims of the gaze of the Other, our character can be very fluid. In his article “Sartre, Kafka & Buber On Identity,” Stephen Small describes how:
It is arguably the case that we know ourselves largely by what others say and think about us. We are not funny if silence follows our telling jokes. We are not handsome if most people do not find us attractive. We are not tall if others tower over us. Others become the metric by which we are measured.
Contrarily, the view of the Other can boost our self-esteem. We think we are the best among our peers when we get a singular, positive comment from our boss. Or, we may think that we are a great athlete, just because we win a single game.
No matter whether these perceptions are completely true or not, our being-for-Others can strongly influence what we believe about our being for-itself. We can easily fall into trying to fit the desires of others, whether that be physically, emotionally, ideologically, or morally. This trend is very evident in modern society, which portrays exaggerated, idealized images of the physically fit, the hipster, or the social activist, and pressures everyone to fit into this mold. But, if we all modify our being for-itself to follow this one image, we become subjected to the rule of societal trends, and we lose who we are really meant to be as individuals. St. Paul urges us: “[d]o not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We cannot find our genuine self in the ever-changing society.
So, where can we find our being for-itself, as it truly is? That comes from our Creator. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, book X, profoundly proclaims
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
He emphasizes how the outside world lead him astray, and how Christ is the Other who truly knows and fulfills him. Once St. Augustine moved interiorly, he encountered the One who knows him infinitely more than any Other in the world. Likewise, by introspecting, we are not forced to be objectified by Others in the world; instead, we can enter into dialogue with and learn from our omnipotent Creator.
It is He who can fulfill our identity. There are numerous biblical examples of Him doing so before, including: Abram becoming Abraham, or Simon becoming Peter. Not only did Christ give them a new name, but he gave them a new purpose, and a great one at that! St. Catherine of Sienna tells us that “if you be who you are meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.” By letting Christ be our Other, and basing our being for-itself on our identity as children of God, we will become the best version of ourselves. Additionally, the attractive nature of our Christian comportment will inspire our neighbors to make Christ their Other.