Saturday, June 13, 2015

Identity is Relational

                Every person defines who he is for himself. A person’s identity is only from within themselves. It cannot be imposed upon a person, even by biological realities. Every man IS an island. At least that’s the growing popular opinion nowadays. Of course that’s crazy talk. My four-month-old son has an identity. He has yet to discover what it means and he certainly can’t define it, but he has it nonetheless. He has a name. His name is Daniel Louis Keane. The simple fact of his name connects him to his older brother who chose “Daniel,” his godfather who shares the middle name of “Louis” as well as three saints named “Louis.” The name of “Keane” marks him as a member of this particular family of Irish Catholics. He didn’t have any choice in the matter, but that’s who he is. Depending on your perspective that’s an imposition or a gift.

                Even we adults, when we introduce ourselves, we of course give our names but also we might say we’re a mother of three, or we work for XYZ Inc., or we graduated from such-and-such college. All of these components of our identity are likewise relational. Even sexuality only makes sense from a relational point of view. I’m not even talking about orientation, meaning to whom we are sexuality attracted. To form a sexual identity at all, we require the examples of others to even give us a concept of what it even means to be masculine or feminine, man or woman. Entire books can and have been written on the subject, such as Alice von Hildebrand’s The Privilege of Being a Woman. We also derive our identities through our relationships with the natural world and with the Divine. 

When we take away all of the relationships, and we are left with the self alone, what do we have? There is no context for gender, race, or even being human at all. So the question is nonsense, but that’s what we’re trying to do culturally. 

I’m not going to waste your time belaboring the evidence for societal breakdown and the isolation of individuals. Families are divorcing, far-flung, or not even forming in the first place. The strength of religious faith is weakening or even altogether absent from people’s lives. Even time spent out in nature is on the decline. So where does that leave us? We are in isolation and consequently going mad. There is no “culture” to sustain us, in the sense of “culture” as a medium for growth. Human beings cannot thrive without a strong culture to tell us who we are and why we are here.

All the popular identity crises, all the “trans” movements, have this one thing in common. They deny the relational nature of the human person. They wish to reject the identity given them by nature and instead desperately grasp at the possibility of creating some sort of meaning and place in this world for themselves. I can’t even begin to express how dreadfully sad it all is. All of the relationships in that person’s life have failed to give to them a sense that they belong, they are wanted, they are beloved the way they are, that they have an important place in this world only they can fill, that they are who they are supposed to be. An individual like this will look to change themselves because—well, what else is left to them?

As for the rest of us, are we our brother’s keeper?

I can’t give a pat answer here. None of us can fix that kind of existential pain and confusion. I will say we’re not doing anybody any favors by ignoring it and not caring enough to acknowledge the simple truth of that pain and confusion. We must not pretend compassion while we cheer on their self-destruction. Step one to recovery is acknowledging the problem. Step two… I honestly do not know. Pray, certainly. And I don’t mean that to be a sanctimonious cop-out.

What we MUST do, is rebuild the culture. What can we do to keep ourselves and those nearest to us from slipping into deep isolation? How can we strengthen our families and our communities? Most importantly, what about our faith? Of all the relationships in our lives, nothing answers who we are more profoundly than our relationship to God. When we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God Who loved us so much to send His only Son and we can fully entrust ourselves to His mercy as broken and messed-up as we are… Well maybe the answer is simpler than I thought. Simple, but certainly not easy.