When one goes through any sort of major life transition–death, divorce, move, career change, and so forth–it is not infrequently the case that one is presented with the opportunity, even perhaps the necessity, of reworking one’s identity, in greater and lesser ways. Of course that concept, identity, is a slippery term, and difficult to define. But what I have in mind here is something like the sense of one’s self that one has by virtue of one’s life habits. In some ways, this sense I have of the concept of identity is malleable and therefore superficial. But by linking this self-sense to one’s life habits, I am also intending a self-sense that touches on the shape of one’s soul. I have here in mind the Aristotelian schema that habits of action shape the soul in certain ways; as he puts it, if one wants to have the character of justice, one habitually will do just things, if one wants to have a soul shaped in the form of generosity, one habitually will give generously. So, while what I have in mind does have something about it of the changeable, I do have also in mind something more than simply what goes by the term “lifestyle.”
This reworking of identity can be, indeed usually is, quite conscious and volitional. One may, for example, arrange one’s living space differently, something quite conscious and intentional. And the subtle, and not-so-subtle, effects of having to walk differently through one’s living space can sometimes offer the opportunity to reshape one’s soul, in small ways likely, but with, perhaps, long-reaching effects. By hanging icons outside one’s front door, by way of example, one may begin making a slight physical veneration, begin offering a brief prayer. And the far-reaching impact of such an action can shape the soul, and create opportunities to experience God’s grace.
But the work of reshaping identity can also have about it a quality of involuntariness. Reminisces of past activities, past heart-desires can sometimes bubble up from memory unbidden. One may be surprised, almost as though suddenly getting reacquainted with a friend long-unseen. One may remember how much time one used to spend doing some activity, or pursuing some interest, and of how much satisfaction one derived from it. Of course, this is also true with regard to reestablishing old relationships that may have been allowed to fall into frequent long silences.
There are dangers and pitfalls in this process. One can encounter feelings of disorientation, having a sense of radical either/or: either I should be the way I once was, or I must be the way I am now, or I must become some third man. This is, of course, a false series of alternative. One’s identity is not found in these things, but one can rework one’s identity through these things. One may rationally and carefully sift through these things from the past, from the present, and from an imagined, intended future. One can also encounter feelings of regret that one ever allowed one’s circumstances or another person or persons to impede and cutoff these former aspects of one’s self. That regret may even lead to feelings of anger, at one’s constraints, at particular relations, at oneself, even at God. One asks, How could I ever have let myself give this up? Once again, this is an unhelpful reaction. Our choices and life circumstances always come with certain limitations, limitations which sometimes result in losses of some things, but also in gains in other things. Even if the loss of these former aspects of oneself happened as the result of unhealthy choices and reactions, one is now presented with an opportunity to regather what had once been lost, and to acquire new things.
Another, and perhaps more serious danger, so it seems to me, is the flip side of the first concern mentioned in the preceding paragraph. That is to say, one may embrace the opportunity to rework and reweave one’s identity, but fail to discern that these various aspects of one’s self–activities, pursuits–do not constitute the essence of one’s soul. They are parts, not the sum, of the whole. If one locates one’s core self-sense in these things, one is likely to lose it again. Perhaps it is helpful to view these activities and pursuits as tools for shaping the soul in the way one wants. They are not the soul itself.
Which brings me to the metaphysics underlying my comments above. As can be noted, I do not equate personal identity with one’s body, or with one’s soul, or with the composite whole of them both. I equate identity with one’s person, which is a hypostatic reality greater than either body or soul or their mere sum (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts). Thus, while one may consciously and actively work to shape one’s soul in various ways–one may, for example, have particular preferences, particular habits of action, and so on–and while such soul-shapes may have a bearing on one’s identity, these things do not equate to one’s identity. One’s identity is located in that unique, unrepeatable entity which one is as a person.
I don’t want to delve too much farther into this here, since this is not a post on philosophical or theological anthropology. I just want to highlight my basic assumptions for my comments.
So, with that said, what is the core of one’s identity? It is in Christ (John 17:20-26 and Ephesians 2:4-7) and from Christ (Revelation 2:17). We are unique, but all that we are finds its perfection, its fulfillment in Christ and in our union with him. Thus, St. Paul could say, I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. But as the Triune God does not cease from creating goods, we are uniquely formed in him to be and to do as unique persons redeemed by his love. We are united in one common New Man, and we are severally new persons. And so our particularities matter. But those particularities are not the core of our identity. We may hold them, we may embrace them, and we may release them and let them go.
And so the adventure begins. Memories of former things and former deeds pop into one’s consciousness. Sometimes a smell will trigger a moment of nostalgia. Or one may hear music that brings to mind former heart desires. And the glory of it all is that these things may be redeemed, brought up from below and assayed again. They will doubtless be newly formed, even in their historicality, because we are not precisely the same persons we were then. We may try them and discover that we let them go for very good reasons. Or we may rediscover the new graces which God is preparing for us.
This is the time of joy. This is the time of renewal. Let us not fear these things, even if they are painful. As Tolkien puts on the lips of his character in the Lord of the Rings: The hands of the King are hands of healing, dear friends. And we may take this as his providence to us, to bring the healing, the renewal that we seek. This is his easy yoke and his light burden, and in this we will find our comfort, our co-strengthening.