Losing ourselves in a culture of self-creation

We live in the first truly self-creating culture. You can actually make a whole new you.

In the past, people were known by their relationships. Our last names are themselves family ties, suggesting that your identity is based on who you are related to. And many of our last names themselves express those family ties: Johnson was “John’s son” at one time and MacDonald actually means “son of Donald.” But as we’ve shed these relational ties, we’ve begun dropping last names in the ways we interact with one another. Almost everyone knows me as Pete and very few at all ever call me Mr. Santucci.

Another way we’ve cut loose from family ties is through our mobility. Where many generations have lived in the same place, recent generations have up and moved on like never before. This new nomadism is vastly farther in its roving than any of the past.

Several years ago, my family had the chance to spend several weeks in Switzerland. In some parts of the country French is spoken and in most of the rest, German is the main language. And the lines between the two are neatly drawn. Driving down the highway, the signs will suddenly switch from one language to the other. There is even a small city that we visited that is French on one end of town and German on the other. Nothing like this exists in America. We are so mobile that we’re losing the regionalism that we’ve had for most of our history.

Once family and regional identities have been lost, it was no big stretch for us to start self-creating in many other ways.

A trip to the tattoo parlor not only changes the color of your skin, it makes a statement about who you are and what you value. Yep, even those tramp stamps are a value and identity statement. From the poorly thought out to the deeply personal designs, each is an effort in self-creation.

From a simple hair color change to expensive and permanent cosmetic surgeries, there is a desire to either fix what one finds undesirable or to express oneself.

Gender reassignment and the fluidity of sexuality in current culture is one of the deepest ways that people self-create.

While most people don’t intentionally create their online personas, the photos used as avatars on Facebook and other social media sites, plus the people followed or friended and the comments posted, are not just forms of self-expression, but of self-creation. Where family ties have faded, I create myself by tying myself to other organizations and TV shows and products and people in my online identity (or identities, as is often the case).

The problem with all of this self-creation is that it tends to unmake us, rather than make us.

Ask the 10-year question of yourself. Is that tattoo I got 10 years ago still who I am today? Is that sexuality I tried out 10 years ago still who I am today? Do those friends I spent self-creation with 10 years ago still have any meaningful presence in my life today? Do I still listen to that band that dominated my music listening 10 years ago? Am I still married to the person I vowed my life to 10 years ago? How many jobs have I had since that dream job I landed 10 years ago?

All these efforts at self-creation turn out to be far less permanent that we thought they’d be. And in the process, as we’ve shifted from one idea of self to another, the question comes up: Do I even know who I am at all?

Frankly, I don’t know myself nearly as much as I’d like to think I do. I don’t know my motives, my own heart, like I wish I did. If I am such a mystery to myself, how much more of a mystery will I be if I keep trying to reinvent myself?

The influential thinker René Descartes is famous for his saying, “I think, therefore, I am.” Basically, the only thing I can actually know is what goes on in my own head. That may be true, but that sure is lonely. And it’s certainly self-absorbed.

I don’t have the exact quote, but another important thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, said to the effect that “I relate, therefore, I am.” I am known not by what goes on in the isolation of my head, but I am known by the relationships I’m a part of. For me that means I am the son of my two aging parents. I am the brother of three living and one dead sister. I am the husband of one wife of 21 years. I am the father of four children. I am a neighbor. I am a pastor. I am a friend. I am a co-worker. I am a child of God and a follower of Jesus. Who I am is made up not of all of the things that I have done to myself, not of the choices I have made for myself, not of the thoughts I have thought about myself. Who I am is the sum of my relationships.

Relationships are the anchor of our identities.

And the most basic relationship of all is the one we have with God, the one who created us in the first place. God, who is always present, is the one relationship we always deal with (even in our attempts to not deal with him). God is foundational. God is primary. God, therefore, should be the starting point in the creation of who we are.

If I want to know who I am, the best place to look isn’t in the mirror. It’s not in my own heart. The best place to look is at Jesus. We were created in the image of God, but we are broken images, distorted by our broken and sinful hearts. But Jesus is the perfect image of God. In him, we see what it truly means to be human, what it means to be and live like we were created to be and live in the first place.

None of us is complete. Our sense for the need to be worked on that leads to our self-creation is a true sense. But we aren’t the best judges of what we need for that continuing creation to take place. The Creator is. And so too is the one who perfectly images what we were always meant to be like.

[The image at the top of this post is called “Self Creation” by Beckmyster]