Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Who Am I?": A Challenge

Who am I?

What a self-involved question!

But shouldn't we all ask it periodically, just to make sure we're not winging off in the wrong direction? We don't want to get so far away from our true selves that we can't find our way back, after all. While trying to find ourselves, we often get lost.

My friend Barbara, in her seventies, handles life so smoothly that I want to be her when I grow up. She really knows who she is, and it gives her both confidence and humility. She takes chances, pursues dreams, relishes people and activity and learning, and treats others as she wants to be treated. She has moral courage to stand up for others or herself, and she knows when to quit and when to try harder, doing both with grace and good humor. She can lead and she can follow, and she understands the right time for each.

Barbara claims she didn't come out of the womb this way..."old age" has taught her a few things. I wonder if she's just being nice, giving me hope. She also sees good in me and tells me so, which reminds me of the saying pat the back and the head swells. Can I trust my ready acceptance of her praise and encouragement? Not on your life. But I certainly want to be that person she describes as me. Yes, I do.

My hairdresser once confessed that she had been intimidated by me at first. "You're so much smarter than I am. But you're so nice I realized that was just my own hang-ups getting in the way and had nothing to do with you." I'm intimidating? Seriously? This does not jive with the self-portrait I've painted. Not one bit. I don't want people to feel intimidated by me. Ever.

Recently, another friend attributed a characteristic to me that left me scratching my head and wondering if she knew me at all. Of course, her comment (which wasn't exactly complimentary) then got me thinking that what other people see in us and what we see in ourselves often bear little resemblance to each other...and both perspectives might be spectacularly right or wrong.

My head is starting to hurt.

Who am I?

One thing I know, deep in my bones: I'm not entirely who I used to be. Most importantly, I'm not depressed, and that used to be a serious problem. Not being depressed means I'm not nearly as uptight or worried or self-conscious as I used to be. I am far more comfortable in my own skin and my own brain. I don't try so hard to get others to like me (though I still like to be liked, of course). I don't have to make others think I'm right because, in fact, I'm often wrong. And that's okay with me these days.

Back when I was depressed, I thought being wrong was pure Greek Tragedy, with its own Chorus singing YOU FAILED over and over again while I sacrificed myself on the altar of perfectionism. If that sounds like you, perhaps my experience will give you hope because time (or professional help) has benefitted me just as my friend claims age has benefitted her.

But still, who am I?

In this day and age of testing everything, perhaps we should turn to personality tests to answer these serious questions. Recently, I took the quickie online version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and came up ENFJ, meaning my characteristics include extraversion, intuition, feeling, and judgment. Apparently only 2 percent of people fit this profile, which explains why sometimes I feel like I am, indeed, alone on an island, freakishly different. The test did help me feel like some recent decisions I've made at least make sense.

The ENFJ description largely fits me (or at least the "me" I want to be), although I would quibble with some details. For instance, according to another test, I'm actually more of an ambivert, incorporating characteristics of both extraverts and introverts, which feels much more accurate to me but isn't a choice on the Myers-Briggs.

Still, who am I?

Who are you?

Why are we here?

I. Have. No. Idea.

And that is okay. Taking personality tests and listening to what others think only get us so far in answering the question...and are not entirely reliable anyway. Prayer is good, if you're the praying type, and so is meditation. Sitting in silence, listening, slows us down and helps us take stock.

Unfortunately, we lie to ourselves pretty easily, don't we? Psychologists studying self-image find all kinds of ways we fool ourselves into thinking we're nicer, smarter, more generous than we really are. Even sociopaths think of themselves as perfectly lovely people. Geneticists say much of our personality is outside our control, a product of genetic programming, while other specialists say that environment controls our destiny. Don't you love "experts"? They lend such clarity to the issues.

Or not. 

When finding an answer to a question leads us into a rabbit warren of confusion, it's usually best to simply ask a different question. "Who am I?" is so self-involved and isolating, and it implies the answer is a single thing, finite and describable and static, like a trilobite in an Ordovician fossil bed or a butterfly pinned in a shadow box. But can we--should we--limit ourselves that way? Isn't it perhaps more accurate to say we are works-in-progress, doing and learning and growing and responding to life as best we can from our first feeble twitches in utero until our last breath?

Happiness research says that the harder you try to find happiness, the less happy you will be. Happiness is a side-effect--a very pleasant one--of doing good things and connecting with others in constructive, positive, and fulfilling ways. Finding ourselves might be much the same thing, a side-effect of living life in our own unique, special way...a way no one else can live it.

Now we're onto something. Life's dynamic, ever changing, and so are we. Let's make what we do and learn and how we grow and respond to life a reflection of our true self...the best self we want to see. Let's not get stuck but, like my friend Barbara, stay open and curious and thoughtful about the possibilities, looking for ways we can serve others to leave the world a better place than we entered it.

That seems a much better way to find ourselves than taking a test, don't you think?

For me, finding myself means sharing the love of Christ with the world, especially on transforming common days and through Stephen Ministry. It means taking care of my family, advocating for my children, and helping others whenever the opportunity arises. It means staying interested in lots of different subjects and reading lots of different books and trying to express my creativity through writing and paper crafts. It means being consciously grateful for life and all the good in it. It means praying for people, standing by them in the tough times, and loving them even when maybe they aren't acting very loveable.

Wow, that makes me sound pretty awesome! The honest truth, however, is that I fail at all those things regularly, pick myself back up, and keep trying. My failures have taught me to be as grace-filled and merciful toward others as I possibly can be, and I fail at that more often than I would like, too. If being my best is hard and confusing for me, with the many resources and privileges of my life, how much harder must it be for those with fewer resources or harder challenges?  

We are all in this together. I'll close by sharing advice from St Paul, who wrote, "So encourage and build each other up...." (1 Thess. 5:11). Barbara builds me up, and I hope I do the same for her. A simple act of encouragement to our fellow humans might help us see more clearly who we are and might help others figure out who they are. We can't figure out who we are by focusing on a self-involved question like "Who am I?" but by connecting with others in positive, unique ways, we might gain a little clarity.

Another friend, Linda, recently decided to volunteer at a local nursing home. She'd been a patient there twice in the past year or so, and she felt such a connection to the other patients that she wants to do something, anything really, to brighten their days. Not everyone feels comfortable with the sick (which is why so many people in nursing homes are lonely), but Linda does, and she's acting on that unique part of herself that grew out of her unique experience. What a great way to discover who you are!

Here's your challenge to answer your own "who am I?": Look around your life and ask yourself who has a need that you can uniquely meet. Perhaps it's as simple as sending a sick friend a handmade card or taking them flowers you grew in your garden or a loaf of banana bread you baked yourself. Perhaps it's teaching the new person at work how to operate the Keurig or modeling patience when waiting in line with surly folks. Maybe it's something bigger, like choosing a career of service (health care, ministry, teaching, the military, etc.) or volunteering at hospice or a children's hospital or a nursing home.  Maybe connecting with others requires you to learn something new or take a risk. Be open.

And see what happens. You just might find a bit of yourself along the way.


  1. This was a very interesting and wonderful post. So much to think about and explore. I'm afraid to admit how long it's been since I have done some critical thinking about myself. It's long overdue. I took the online test and came up ISFJ. Quite surprised that I agree with most of the characteristics but there are a few points I totally disagree with. This gives me even more to ponder. Thanks for sharing and giving me lots to think about.

  2. Funny to me...I just today shredded the results of this test from our premarital counseling 29 years ago and I didn't look to see what I was...I took the test just now and I'm ISFJ...interesting information if I ever need it!

  3. Thought provoking post! I, too, have been called intimidating, and was quite shocked. The funny thing was, I was being audited at by the woman who said it! My friend, who was conducting the audit with her and told me about the comment thought it was pretty funny. Perception is an interesting thing. It's definitely subjective.

    As for being an ambivert, I think the majority of people are. MBTI just tells you which side of the fence you lean more towards. I'm also an ambiavert, but lean more towards the I. (Interestingly, if I remember correctly, I think I'm ISFJ like the other 2 commenters. Weird, or what? Are all of your commenters ISFJ?! Hard to say, 3 is not a very good sample size).

    As for happiness, I believe that happiness is a choice. Searching for it is fruitless, but it's yours for the taking.

    This is what I know so far about who I am, BUT I am 45 (almost) and I often say that I haven't decided who I want to be when I grow up. Will I know by the time I'm 50? I doubt it. I think you should continue to grow and change as the years go by, otherwise what is the point in being here?


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!