Part of the purpose of this journey we call life is to answer the question “Who am I?” The answer to that question evolves as we mature. In our youth, much of our identity is given to us by family, mentors, society, or our native culture. Gender often plays a pivotal role in developing that identity. As a boy growing up in an LDS environment, my identity was largely shaped around my priesthood and the future responsibilities it entailed. While I had yet to experience my future, the plans I made shaped who I was and wanted to be.
As a youth, the road map for my future – my intended identity – looked something like this diagram. It was straightforward and consisted of boxes I could tick that would help me know who I am – returned missionary, father, husband, etc.
However, with a little more experience under my belt, I perceived that life was not as straightforward as my youthful self once imagined. Even with the same milestones on the timeline, my life – and the life of my friends – began to look different. For example, I used to think that 25 was a great age for marriage. That age came and went with most of my friends being married, but I still found myself single. Being single at 25, or 30, or 35 (almost) wasn’t bad or wrong, but it was different than my previous plan, and my experience did begin to reshape my identity because I wasn’t able to use “husband” as part of my sense of self.
As life continued, I learned that life’s path is a little more winding, and more customized to the individual than I once thought, kind of like the next diagram. Even two lives with the same milestones can look very different for two different people. Sometimes it is based on individual life choices, and sometimes it is different just because we are meant to walk different roads.
But what happens when the road starts to become more winding than we are prepared for? We experience all sorts of “disruptions,” like: early return from a mission, mental illness, not finishing college, pornography or other addiction, never getting married, getting divorced, infertility, losing a job, losing a child, financial instability, or debilitating physical illness.
When one’s life deviates from the plan, we don’t just lose that thing we hoped for in life, we lose that part of our identity which was founded on the achievement of certain milestones. As I experienced more "disruptions," the experiences began to raise the – often subconscious – questions, "Who am I?" and “Who am I as a man?” or “What does it mean to be a man?” The same can be true for a woman in her own regard.
As these questions arose, I could choose to do some self-reflection to find an answer… but that didn’t sound like fun. And, my culture taught me that real men don’t really do "soul searching." Instead, I explored what I believe to be the two most common approaches to resolve the loss of identity:
Rigidly stick to the plan, trying to force it to work and/or pretending that the disruption doesn’t exist; or
Blame the church (or church culture) for giving him an identity that didn’t fit his circumstance, and leave the church.
Frankly, I’ve tried both of these alternatives and neither worked very well for me because I just traded in one set of issues for another. In both alternatives, I still lost a piece of myself. In approach 1, I lost the piece of me that accepts and lives the reality of my life, by choosing to live in a dream instead. In approach 2, I lost my connection to the gospel and to God. Either way, I still felt empty.
My journey continued and I found a third alternative. Instead of viewing the “disruption” as that, I learned to view it as an invitation from God to chart my own course and co-create my own unique identity with Him as my partner.
Suddenly, the “disruption” becomes the catalyst for growth. Grieving is often a natural part of the process, but eventually, my grief, shame, or loss, can transform into a sense of adventure and gratitude as I allow God to guide my path and give me the experience that is best for me. Experience teaches me about who I am and my life becomes more rich. I find my identity not in the roles I play (like husband, grandpa, or Bishop), nor in my achievements (like a promotion or seeing my kids sealed in the temple), but in a deepening relationship with Christ. He speaks to me and I listen; He guides me and I follow; He gives me opportunities to know myself and I choose to grow into and discover the man He sees in me. My identity is no longer based on what I do, but who I am. My identity is not founded in the world's vision of me, or even my own vision of my life, but Christ's vision of who I am.
While I used to envy men whose lives seemed to follow the charted course so easily, that is no longer the case. The “disruptions” I’ve experienced have been some of the best opportunities to explore and redefine my identity, and seek answers to questions like “Who am I?”; “What do I value?”; “What do I want from life?”; and “How are Christ and I partners on this awesome journey of life?”
This is why we’ve created Discover Identity and the As I Am retreat and workshops. This is our way to help our LDS brothers find their own answers to these questions and partner with Christ to develop a vision of their unique identity and path. Some men who participate have experienced a “disruption” and are actively seeking answers. Others may not have experienced a “disruption,” but are being proactive about defining their identity. Either way, knowing who we are as men will make us better husbands, fathers, brothers, church leader, sons, coworkers, or whatever responsibility God gives us, while also bringing greater peace and purpose to the present.
Special thanks to Devin Little for creating the graphics.