Who am I really?

November 8th, 2022

Glenn Close won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in 2019. Everybody expected Lady Gaga to get the award for “A Star is Born.” Including a stunned Glenn Close. Close had starred in “The Wife,” the film about a woman who had secretly ghostwritten all of her Nobel-prize-winning husband’s novels without the slightest hint of recognition.

In her tearful acceptance speech, Close gave the usual list of thanks. Then she shared with the celebrity crowd something her mother had told her toward the end of her long life. It went something like this:

“I’ve subordinated my own desires and aspirations to the needs of others for my whole life. I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything.”

After acknowledging the goodness of her mother’s love and support for family, Close stressed that women had to be free to express their own deep passions. To be liberated from the constraints of rigid social roles and expectations in order to become who they truly are. We could say something similar about ethnicity, social class, and sexual orientation.

Identity is crucial to human existence. Each of us needs to have a sense of who we are and a sense of what makes us valuable. We need both self-knowledge and self-regard. 

Every culture lays out a path for identity formation. The philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the path that we modern Westerners simply assume is what Robert Bellah called expressive individualism. The true self is an inner core of desires and aspirations.

To be true to ourselves and to feel self-esteem, we need to acknowledge, to accept, and to act upon our inner passions and dreams despite the discouragement or even the opposition offered by others. What makes this life valuable is the authenticity with which I express outwardly what my true inner self yearns for. Nobody can tell me who I am and what makes my life worth living. Self-assertion is the path to healthy identity formation. What you achieve is what makes you valuable.

The upside of our modern approach to identity formation is the loosening of—if not the complete abolition of—artificial social constraints on individual life choices.The downside is that we can come to value others and ourselves on the basis of individual achievements. And this can be crushing.

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We can become obsessed with the relevance of our skill set. And since the world is changing ever more rapidly, we can find ourselves on a treadmill of perpetual skill-set upgrading. 

Moreover, given that our worth hinges on the quality of what we produce, we find ourselves needing again and again to dazzle others with our innovative accomplishments. Face it, everybody is always looking for the next big thing. None of us wants to be last week’s news.

It seems obvious that we’re likely to size each other up on the basis of relative merit. Winners and losers. Heavy hitters and underachievers. Our relationships are littered with judgment and tainted by competition.

Jesus offers us a better way. Our identity can be rooted in the sense that we are called. Luke tells us that Jesus once overheard his friends squabbling about who was the greatest. Here’s how he responded to them:

“The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27)

Jesus is certainly not applauding their self-assertion. But neither is he insisting that they lead a life of servile subordination to the whims or expectations of others. Instead, he’s suggesting that their sense of self comes neither from within nor from the external demands of other people. Who we are—who we truly are—is our response to God’s love echoing within the chambers of our own souls. Sociologist and philosopher Hartmut Rosa calls this resonance.

David J. Wood explains it like this:

“[Resonance] is the feeling of being called, addressed by something or someone external to us. This is the experience of being touched or moved, and it can be elicited by a piece of music, a book, a passage of scripture, poetry, a landscape, or a conversation with a friend. Second is self-efficacy—our response, our reaching out to what moves us to make a connection. The third characteristic is transformation. We are changed in some way; we feel alive.”[1]

One of the joys of being a bishop is ordaining women and men as priests and deacons. In the worship service I ask them, “Do you believe that you are truly called by God?” So far at least they’ve always responded to me with a liturgical thumbs up.

But my fondest hope is that everyone will realize that this question is addressed to them. “Do you feel called by God?” Each and every one of us is called by our Maker. By our eternal and steadfast Lover. Who we really are is not any specific job we hold, career we pursue, or achievement we accomplish. 

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ—ordained or not—is to allow ourselves to be shaped by his relentless love for us into someone who loves because that is just who we are. 


This essay originally appeared at Jake Owensby's blog, and is reprinted with permission. 

[1] See https://www.christiancentury.org/article/books/hartmut-rosa-says-we-re-running-faster-just-stay-place

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