Because “Just Be Yourself” Isn’t Enough:
Thoughts on Identity and Purpose
In which I share:
- a story:
“If Phillip, the most true-to-himself person I knew, could succumb to perfectionism and fear of criticism and failure, what chance did I, a person who cared so deeply about what others thought of me, have?”
- a question:
“What did it mean to be created on purpose with a purpose when my life seemed like the human version of a mixed tape?”
- a realization:“I had made the mistake, and perhaps you have too, of thinking of identity as one categorizing thing possessed by the individual. Identity, I’ve come to understand, is actually a complex design bestowed by an intentional Creator.”
- a resolve:
“Faced with this truth, that who I am is a more complicated and holistic picture than the individual parts of what I do, what I like, or who I love, I realized I needed to stop striving to ‘just be myself’ and instead embrace my unique design and better know my intentional Creator.”
He stood on the stage, his blue hair sculptured with the same precision his fingers applied to the strings of his guitar, singing words he had crafted to explain the anxiety that accompanies the transition from high school to adulthood.
From day one of our friendship, Phillip seemed to embrace the idea of “just be yourself” to the fullest extent. At the conservative Christian youth convention where I met him, he was the teen wearing the bright yellow suit one day and red and black checkered pants the next. He was charismatic, clumsy, humble, and loved punk music and Jesus. Phillip seemed to have figured out the secret to not caring what others thought about him.
I wanted to know the secret so badly.
But, here we were, Phillip singing at what would be his last show. He had decided to go to college in the fall for something unrelated. The life of pursuing the creative dream I had for myself suddenly seemed so very fragile; if Phillip, the most true-to-himself person I knew, could succumb to perfectionism and fear of criticism and failure, what chance did I, a person who cared so deeply about what others thought of me, have? At the time, I was frustrated with Phillip for what seemed like abandoning his creative passion, but really I was just fearful of eventually doing the same. I haven’t been sure of many things in my life, but at 19, I was certain that I was supposed to write stories.
Staring at the reality of adulthood demanding an answer, what little my teenage mind knew about identity and purpose suddenly felt very fluid. Adulthood is concrete and identity and purpose so very abstract. The prospect of building a heavy, solid life on top of ideas that shift and change with each day, was enough stress to induce self-doubt and a bit of panic. So, when I entered my junior year of college that fall, I prayed desperately that God would show me what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. But, what I was really saying was, “who am I supposed to be if not a novelist?”
College is where you’re supposed to “find yourself.” You try on identities like different outfits until you find one that feels like you. But, what if you both enjoy the feminine dress and the edgy leather jacket? The tennis shoes and the 3-inch heels? What if you want slip on a comfy sweater today and a blazer tomorrow? I was a double-major spending my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the English building and my Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Business one. I had creatives, athletes, scholars, teachers, and scientists for friends. I loved going to basketball games and poetry readings, all while desperately missing my large, loud family back home. I had too many words, and not enough at the same time, to define who I was.
Eventually, my creative-logical mind found a label for me to use after graduation: I would work in Christian publishing as a fiction acquisitions editor while focusing on writing the next great American novel. I would be (and this went on my website portfolio) a “writer disguised as an editor to pay the bills.”
With a laugh, the next 10 years gave my creative-logical mind many opportunities to do its thing, though none of those opportunities involved editing fiction novels or writing them. Instead, I interned at a publishing house for one summer, worked as an editor on four different scientific journals, wrote PSAs and press releases about dental and sports health, helped launch a podcast about dentistry, implemented social media communications for multiple businesses and non-profits, freelanced as a writer and editor on many random projects, tutored community college students in writing, planned 9 weddings, coordinated over 20 events, co-founded a non-profit food pantry, designed a client service system from scratch, got a crash course in ministry leadership and conflict resolution, volunteered as a youth group leader, created 8 websites, designed numerous social media graphics and fliers, taught writing and worldview classes to homeschooled high schoolers and ASL classes to homeschooled K-2nd graders, married a man who loves me like I’m the greatest person to walk this earth and forgives me when I’m not, and gave birth to two beautiful babies and adopted a third beautiful one.
Once again, too many words and yet not enough to define who I was exactly. And none of them were “novelist.”
It was a given that I was loved, redeemed, valued, and accepted by Jesus and His work on the cross, but how did that translate into the every day? What did it mean to be created on purpose with a purpose when my life seemed like the human version of a mixed tape?
And then, about five years ago, I experienced another transition year in my life that set me on a path to rethink the concepts of identity and purpose. Because, if I wasn’t a great mom, a good friend, a strong ministry leader, or a successful writer—and at that time, all of those things seemed to be in jeopardy—who was I exactly?
My existential crisis was met with the instruction to “just be yourself” and to “stop worrying what other people think of you” and, this one hit hard, “maybe you just need to pray for contentment.”
“It isn’t contentment I need,” I wanted to yell in response, “it’s clarity.”
Jesus had taken me on a journey that, while quite the adventure, contained pieces from different puzzles. Nothing fit together and yet they were supposed to. The fact that I couldn’t see how was salt in the wound.
Eventually, I stopped writing.
This might seem insignificant if you don’t process your thoughts through writing, but to stop writing meant I gave up on understanding. As one new difficulty after another assaulted my life, I turned from seeking clarity to simply surviving. With grace, Jesus held me up in that space of survival, turned me towards him, and spoke clearly to me about my identity and purpose:
- Uniquely designed by an intentional Creator who has purposed me with unique work to do for His kingdom.
- Fractured by sin and justified by His redemptive work on the cross.
- Sanctified by daily choices that draw me closer to His initial design on my life.
- Making an impact on and being impacted by the community He gives and takes away.
I had made the mistake, and perhaps you have too, of thinking of identity as one categorizing thing possessed by the individual. Identity, I’ve come to understand, is actually a complex design bestowed by an intentional Creator.
A complex design that includes a combination of both doing and being, is affected by both the spiritual and the physical, and involves both the individual and community. Our initial design, our original identity, has been fractured by sin in such a way that we view it as separate parts instead of the whole. You can never “just be yourself” because yourself, who you are at your core, was never designed to simply just exist. Your unique design is meant to breathe and act and move within the context of a relationship with Christ and others. Faced with this truth, that who I am is a more complicated and holistic picture than the individual parts of what I do, what I like, or who I love, I realized I needed to stop striving to “just be myself” and instead embrace my unique design and better know my intentional Creator.
Looking back on that transition year at 19, I no longer see Phillip’s choice to pursue a career outside of music as ignoring who he was at his core. Because, honestly, it was much more complicated than that. I was only able to see one tiny sliver of the whole of Phillip’s identity. In that year, Phillip stopped just being himself and instead starting taking steps towards embracing his unique design, the whole of it.
Fluid and abstract in theory, concrete in implementation.
Shifting and changing as you grow closer to Jesus.
Embracing your unique design is not a single event, but rather a choosing that happens in the every day moments. It looks a lot like continuous self-reflection, implemented spiritual disciplines (like prayer, meditating on God’s word, and taking a sabbath), learning from mistakes, stepping out in obedience, and experiencing hardships and joys within the context of community. There is nothing “just be” about it; it is something you embrace and something that embraces you.
It’s the puzzle pieces that don’t fit, and yet, they do.
One day, I believe, we’ll see exactly how.
// In the weeks ahead, we’re going to dig deeper into the four fragments of our fractured identity:
1. Created Identity: Who am I?
2. Justified Identity: Who does God say I am?
3. Sanctified Identity: How does my unique design affect my life choices?
4. Social Identity: How does my unique design affect my relationships?
After that, we’ll begin to explore in this space what it means on a practical level to embrace your unique design and know your intentional Creator.