Identity Crisis

Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. (Psalm 26:1)

“It is my name!” As John Proctor cries out so his wife, Elizabeth lets out a gasp as if her breath were hope itself escaping from her soul. Her head falls forward so as to avoid looking to an indifferent heaven. My wife and I are in Stratford-upon-Avon watching a production of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible.

Proctor stands accused, falsely, of witchcraft in seventeenth century Massachusetts. All he has to do to save himself from the gallows is sign a confession which would be posted in the church for all to see. Our sympathies are with the hero, we want him to sign; we want him to live. And, just as the theatre fills with so much tension that it feels it must explode, it seems we are to be granted our wish. Proctor signs. But, on learning that his confession must be publicised, Proctor seizes the confession and tears it up, shouting as he does so, “It is my Name!”. Miller has played with our sympathies and has won. While we had wanted Proctor to live, Miller has shown us that it was more important for John Proctor to be John Proctor to the end. The hero becomes truly heroic as he refuses to surrender his identity as a Christian, even if it meant dying as a witch.

Psalm 26 can be read as a prayer about identity. In pleading for God to vindicate him the psalmist is asking God to recognise and defend his true identity as a faithful Israelite. David is obviously under attack for being something other than what he is and feels he needs to defend his true identity. He does this by telling us a story about himself. He has not been a man to “sit with men of falsehood” (4), which is to say that he is himself not a person whose life is devoted to worthless and pointless things. He is instead a man who “washes his hands in innocence” (6). This is not a self-righteous claim but an assertion that he is sincere and genuine in his worship of God.

This is a psalm that raises for us the whole question of identity. How do we know who we are? How is our identity formed? For all of us in some way or another, and at some point in our lives, the question of identity will be a troubling one and so the means by which our sense of identity is created achieves crucial importance.

We know who we are by the story we tell ourselves about our lives and our place in the world. Identity is formed through narrative. We organise our experiences, our beliefs about ourselves and the world and our expectations for the future into a story and it is this story we turn to in order to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’ (In the philosophical world this idea has been proposed by Paul Riceour in his books Time and Narrative Vol 3, and Oneself as Another. Within psychotherapy literature it is to be found in Eric Berne’s idea of ‘life scripts’ in Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy).

Difficulties arise in our sense of identity when events happen, whether single or repeated, which we struggle to integrate into our personal narrative. They don’t fit with our beliefs about us or the world, or they are too traumatic to be able to understand how to incorporate them into our story. Like a web-page that will not load properly, our identity becomes frozen around these difficult experiences, unable to move forward, unable to express itself truly or fully.

For some of us our confidence in our own story and our own story-making ability will be undermined by such experiences and we will rely on others to tell us who we are. Our identity becomes porous and we will depend on hints and cues from all around us in order to understand ourselves.

For others our story will become confused and disjointed. Who we are will be unstable and might even be fractured. Our story resembles the TV screen of a channel-hopper, the snippets of different programmes can never be stitched together into a comprehensible narrative.

Still for others we will repress the difficult experiences and construct a story for ourselves from which they been completely erased. The identity that emerges is that of a false self. It is an identity that we have constructed with the sole purpose of defending against the difficulty of those experiences we don’t wish to acknowledge or integrate into our narrative.

All of these processes are familiar to any counsellor and all of them impact our lives in innumerable ways. Because they have a major role in our personal plot-lines they will inevitably shape our identity as Christians, the story of our faith. This may lack robustness and be at the mercy of the criticisms of others. Perhaps it will suffer from a want of stability and be exposed to the waves whipped up by the winds of harmful doctrine. It may, for others, take the form develop a false Christian persona, one whose impossible toughness will do little to mask its impoverished core, starved of human experience by its failure to experience vulnerability.

The psalmist is confident, the true guardian of his identity is God. As New Testament believers we see the true extent of God’s determination to guard our identity. In Christ he has taken our stories of failure and swapped them with his own. Christ has not so much brought God back into our story as he has inserted us back into God’s. We now live with respect to God, the Creator, Redeemer and Glorifier of our race. The answer to the question, ‘Who are we?’ begins with God’s story and the whole of our story unfolds within the context of who God is.

I am not saying that knowing this will rectify the difficulties we all have with our own identities. What I am saying is that it provides us with an overall structure for our stories. It is a good base from which we can, with the help of others, begin to construct a story of a flourishing human being.

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