“Let’s play kickball,” a friend said.
It was grade school. The Spring sun was warm, and it was time for recess.
We grabbed the red ball from the closet and headed outside. It didn’t take long before much of the class was playing with us. It felt good that others had joined in, and that I wasn’t picked last for once. I remember running. I was almost to home base. Everyone was cheering for me to make it. With only a few feet to go, I felt the ball slam against my leg. I wasn’t fast enough. I was out.
“Why didn’t you run harder,” a boy who was on my team said. “You’re crap. We don’t want you to play with us.”
His harsh words continued, and they stung. I went from feeling accepted as a part of the group, to feeling rejected. An outsider. Although I wasn’t the only one to get tagged out, I was the one who took the brunt of his anger. In the beginning I had felt some pride that I had helped start the game, and that it was my game, but the other boy made it his by taking it from me through his comments. Or so I thought.
This boy was one of my bullies, and one of the more popular kids. I didn’t stand up to him, so I gave him my power (confidence, self-esteem, sense of value). I assumed everyone else felt the same contempt for me that he did, and many of them may have. But I assumed the worst, and cowered into the background, feeling hurt, ashamed, and mistreated. I put up emotional walls to avoid being hurt further. In doing so, I let what happened have power over me. As I internalized the messages that he and the others gave me, I let them have power over me. I let them impact how I felt about myself.
This way of thinking continued through my life and unconsciously I allowed it to form my identity. In fact, I also adopted other negative identities at a young age. I often viewed who I was with how I thought other people viewed me, like a sponge that soaked up the negative, but miraculously often repelled the positive. To my peers I was the tallest kid in class, so of course to them, I must be fat too, even if I wasn’t. But I believed it, so I became it. To the old ladies I was the cute kid with the cute dimple. That shouldn’t have been a bad thing, but I didn’t want to be called cute. So I hated my dimple.
I was the “happy” kid that smiled a lot, but who was really often sad inside. But people liked when I smiled, so I kept smiling, so I was also fake. Was I really a tall, fat, cute, happy, smiling, fake kid with a dimple? Or was I becoming the sum total of what I thought others were thinking about me? Truth be told, my identity was tied up in things which were based in stories. Either the stories others told me, or the stories that I told myself. But, as is often the case with stories, much of what was told was false.
Not all of my identity is based in story (mine or others). I am, or have been, a son, a grandson, a brother, a scout, a Mormon. In my church, I have been a Deacon, Teacher, Priest, Elder, a missionary, a single man, therefore (according to my religious culture) a menace to society. I am also a husband, an uncle, a provider, a friend. These are titles I have or have had. They all have meaning. And while some titles may be permanent, many aren’t. Even the ones that I believe should be permanent can change. So, titles still don’t give me a sense of who I really am at my core.
Within each of my titles I fulfill a role. Within each of these roles there are transitional moments. For instance, I’ve been laid off from my job twice. As a man, I need to feel valued. One of the basic ways that I feel valued is by being able to provider, but when I went through a period where I couldn’t provide for myself and my wife, I experienced a drop in confidence and an identity crisis.
Someone else may also feel an identity crisis after a divorce, or a death, or during a transition of faith. But transitional moments are just that. They don’t define our value, or who we are. They’re merely placeholders in our lives, much like a bookmark placed at the end of a chapter. But the book will continue on to the next chapter.
While the above narratives, titles, and roles are part of my identity and thus serve an important purpose, they aren’t my core identity. Those things are like layers of dirt hiding the treasure that was always there, from the beginning. They are layers that have too often kept the brilliant light of who I am from shining. It’s taken a lot of years to discover who I really am. There’s been a lot of effort, successes and failures that have lead me to this knowledge. It certainly wasn’t easy. But I feel that through all of my self-discovery, God has been there guiding me to my current understanding. The truth I found quite simply and profoundly is that I am a son of God who is loved by him and has immense value to him. I always have had value, and I always will. Nothing in this mortal experience will change that. Nothing can. God’s love is unconditional. My value to him is unconditional. My spirit is the same spirit that I had in the pre-mortal life. It is bright, it is good, it is the work of God, through which he can show his glory. I only have to uncover those layers so that it can be seen.
I’m no longer that hurt kid on the playground, who isolated himself to avoid pain. I’m no longer the victim, shouldering the false identities that I thought others wanted to place on me. At the same time, I recognize the good roles that I find value in; such as being a husband, an uncle, and a friend. I see my purpose and know my value. But to get to this place, I’ve had to really look at those identities that I’ve accepted about myself, and where needed, lay them by the wayside. It’s not always easy to let go of the false narratives and beliefs that have been a large part of my life, but once gone, there is freedom. There’s freedom to grow, to become, and to be the man that I, and that God wants me to be.
“[I am] the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let [my] light so shine before men, that they may see [my] good works, and glorify [my] Father which is in heaven." - Matthew 5:14-16
We’d like to thank Keith Sorenson for contributing this article to Discover Identity