“Who are you?”
I was at a weekend workshop years ago, and my assigned partner sat across from me, asking me this question as part of a workshop exercise. We were to volley the question back and forth, answering in a new way each time.
I am a teacher.
I am a mom.
I am a university graduate.
I am a friend.
I am a Costco member.
I am a runner.
I remember we had to keep it going for longer than felt comfortable, and after a while, we were dredging up all kinds of identifiers, laughing at the silly answers. We were told that Tibetan monks do this exercise, and at each answer, they begin to belly laugh together at the absurdity of all the labels we think define us.
Over the last months, as I’ve stepped away from the classroom on a medical leave, I’ve thought back to this exercise. “I am a teacher” is something I always took some pride in when people asked that all important question, “And what do you do?”
Stepping away from any identifier, especially the big ones, is not an easy task. Niggling thoughts began to scratch at the door of my mind. I realized I was in a desert of sorts, without the usual answers to give to people. Not only that, I wondered what people back at work were thinking of me. Did anyone miss me? Did my contribution matter? Did people still approve of me when I was no longer “useful”? My job had propped me up, giving me assurance of some kind that I was liked and affirmed and needed.
In noticing all these thoughts parading through my mind, I began to see that as long as I remember, I’ve had this aching yearning to be liked, to be affirmed and needed. It’s an ache that truly can never be satisfied by any human being. It’s always been there, but without the background noise of a busy schedule, it has been more apparent to me and has prompted me to dig deeper into my true identity. Who am I indeed?
The helpful counterpoint to these vexing thoughts has been the meditative space I’ve been given. In the silence of days, verses from Psalm 139 came back to me. There it says that God has known me before I was born, before any human had ever even seen me or named me, before I was ever a “teacher”. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Ps. 139:13
All these identifiers like careers, houses, what we wear, what we look like, are like the morning grass that another Psalm says withers by the day’s end. (Psalm 103:16) An old hymn says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.”
This lifelong, aching yearning to find acceptance and approval outside of myself is something I now see I need to give up. Like a line from my current favorite song says, “I’ve been trying way too hard.” The straining effort of it all has probably contributed at least somewhat to the headaches that led to my medical leave.
David Benner, an author I’ve been reading lately, helpfully writes that desiring money or a successful image or acceptance are misplaced, or disordered, desires. “Ordered—or purified—desires expand me and connect me to others and the world in life-enhancing ways. Disordered desires suck me into myself and rather than adding vitality to life, leach it away.”
It has bred only self-preoccupation and dissatisfaction to try to grab affirmation from the world. It has kept me from my deepest desire, which is to focus my gaze on God who loves me unconditionally in my weakness and imperfection, not when I have everything together, earning so-called love through self-effort and worldly accomplishments.
Who am I? No matter what identifiers come my way in this walk on earth, who I am most deeply is God’s beloved daughter.
God’s words have been a gift to me, the perfect antidote to my addictive way of living. They heal my heart. Like finding an oasis in the desert, my parched life has found the best resting place. No wonder the Buddhist monks were laughing.