If asked to answer the question “Who am I?” – how would you answer? No context, no setting, no defined purpose for asking, just the question: who am I? If you haven’t already, stop reading and take a moment to think about it, right now. What would your answer be? Who are you?
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Identity is such a tricky thing – it’s fluid, and our answers to the question of who we are both change and don’t change over time. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have answered “minister,” but now that’s a central part of who I am. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have answered “husband,” but my marriage is now a central part of my life. Three years and one week ago, I wouldn’t have answer “father,” but now parenting is a central focus of my day-to-day activities. On the other-hand, male, straight, white, and Unitarian Universalist are all identities that have remained a constant throughout my life. Even those though – my understanding of them has changed over time. For example, I have a much more nuanced understanding of my whiteness now than I did ten years ago. And the way that I am Unitarian Universalist in the world has evolved considerably across my lifespan. So even my relatively “fixed” identities have changed. And yet, despite all this change, I still feel like the same me at my core. A changed me, but me nonetheless.
And, there are other ways to define ourselves still. When I paused just now, to answer the question “who am I?” the first response that came into my head was “I’m someone who is committed to learning and growing throughout my lifetime.” That’s a value, a belief. It’s not the only way I identify myself, but in this moment at least it felt like the most important. There’s also of course parts of identities that we might consider of lesser import or weight – for example, I’m also someone who loves science fiction and fantasy novels, I’m also a Boston sports fan, and I’m also a technology enthusiast. I wouldn’t say those are “the most important” things to know about me, but they’re part of who I am.
Then there’s the value in our identities to consider. I’ll never forget the sermon I heard, as a layperson attending my UU church in Philadelphia, from a UU minister who was serving as the director of a retirement home. She lifted up her concern for the folks she was working with that they seemed to have lost value in the eyes of so many in our society because they were no longer working. One of the first questions we typically ask when we get to know people is “what do you do?” with the clear assumption being that everyone has a job. Which is why if someone is answers that question by saying they are a stay-at-home parent, or they currently unemployed, the ensuing conversation often feels awkward. Our culture places value on, and assumes that we all are, working. This minister shared with us how she was aware of how often her clients seemed to be diminished by no longer having a “culturally valued” job – not just in interactions with others, but also in many cases just in life in general, and challenged us to remember everyone’s inherent worth and dignity.
Which parts of your identity are valued most by our American culture? Which parts of your identity do you value the most yourself? Is there ever any conflict or tension between the two?
As we embark on our exploration of our April theme of Identity, I hope you will join me in wrestling with these questions and more. Our identities change over the course of time, sometimes by intentional choice, sometimes by natural evolution, and sometimes against our will – think loss of a job or loss of a spouse, among many other possibilities. Taking the time to name our identities, and to think about which ones have value for ourselves, and in our culture, can help us better understand who we are and what is most important to us in our lives. And it can help us better understand and deal with threats to our identity, as well as help us better navigate identity transitions.
May we engage in identity exploration together this month with intention and thoughtfulness, so that we may deepen ourselves, each other, and our community.
See you in church!
peace, love and blessings,