Category Archives: identity

In Remembrance of the Nineties.

Gen.u.ine. Adjective. Truly what something is said to be; authentic.
Au.then.tic. Adjective. Done in a way that faithfully resembles an original. (2) based on facts; accurate or reliable.

The past few weeks I have indulged in some greatnesses of my adolescent experience, including starting this post with the most basic strategy to start a paper, also reminiscent of sophomore Honors English circa 1996.


The Catcher in the Rye. Quite possibly the book that made me start thinking about what I was reading. Haven’t read it since. What that says about me, I’m not sure.

My So-Called Life. I really think Angela Chase’s voiceovers are the most accurate picture of being 15. And although this will be mostly based on Holden, as I was thinking about what I wanted to say, Angela Chase (via Claire Danes) is in the midst of an identity crisis. If you don’t remember, she has recently made new best friends, moved on from her old one and to represent it all dyed her hair. Her neighbor has a particular problem with this and in his infinite sophomoric wisdom (speaking of, weren’t you insulted when that showed up on SAT vocabulary lists, but see it’s brilliant value as an adjective now?) tells her that it’s all an act. Angela responds that everyone is an act. Interesante.

Holden Caulfield feels the same way. We get inside his head in a way not all that different than Angela—on a higher literary note, yes, but his narration takes you inside the head of someone wrestling with the world. Holden’s biggest complaint is that everywhere he goes, people are just a bunch of phonies:

“Lawyers are alright, I guess…I mean they’re alright if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot shot. And besides. Even if you did go around savings guys’ lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys’ lives, or because you did it because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddamn trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”

The great irony is that, to me, Holden is a phony himself; wanting to do noble, true acts, but finding himself completely unable.

So I guess what I’m thinking about is what does it mean to be genuine? (Note the definitions now…the one for genuine is rather circular.) Authentic? Here’s what I love. The idea of resembling an original…who I was created to be by my Creator, rather than who the world wants or tells me to be. Even more so, being based on facts. And to me, the facts are that I am human. I mess up. A lot. I want to be transparent about that. I don’t want to try to cover that up and pretend to be something I’m not. I don’t want people to think that I’ve got my act together because I don’t. But the other fact of that matter is that I am loved. Jesus looks right at my messiness and loves me anyway. I am amazed at the beauty of grace. Because isn’t that our fear, anyway? That people won’t love us if they see our true selves? What a lie. The other fact is that I am blessed. There are so many hearts who mean so much to me, from Kentucky to Kenya, that I am literally overwhelmed…that my cup does indeed runneth over, which was the only feeling that rattled in me last weekend. (see last post…sigh)

So yeah. I just want to be free.

Anorexia of the Soul?

It is always interesting to me when all sorts of texts in my life start overlapping.

This morning I read an article in the New York Times called “For Girls, it’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too.” The article chronicled the lives of a few girls who live just outside of Boston in a prestigious community and have the luxury of attending one of the best public schools in the country. The premise of the article is that girls now have a freedom that wasn’t open to even just the previous generation of women. This freedom has opened up so many opportunities for young women to explore and pursue, but also begs the question at what cost?

The girls in the article are juggling AP classes, extracurriculars, community service and social expectations. The message that is understood, the title of the article, is that they should be themselves—pursue what moves them and excites them—and at the same time make sure that they land A’s in all classes, nail the SAT’s, and have all the right extra activities that will bolster their resume for college application. On top of that is the message that being pretty counts. Aye.

One of the mothers made an extremely interesting comment: “You just have to hope that your child doesn’t have anorexia of the soul.” That idea is devastating—to starve the part of you that makes you truly live; to push that part of your identity to the side in the name of success or achievement or acknowledgement.

I also had the privilege of watching many of my seventh graders perform Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” this week. I studied this book in college, but forgot how powerful a metaphor it was. Victor Frankenstein dedicates his entire life to studying science, forsaking relationships to the point that he misses his mother’s funeral. Eventually, he is on the brink of his educational quest: to bring to life a creature made from various parts of dead bodies. Disgusting, yes. But so is the way that this parallels so many lives. The creature becomes the physical manifestation of Victor Frankenstein’s inner life. The moment it comes to life, he is so disgusted by it that he wants to kill it. The creature gets away, and despite its desire for comfort and love, does not know its own strength and becomes responsible for the deaths of many close to Victor. By the end, Victor’s entire family is lost, including his fiancée. Victor then dedicates his life to chasing down his monster, only to realize that he himself cannot kill it. Then he dies.

The final link in all of this is a question that my pastor, Tim Keller, repeatedly talks about in his sermons: What is your ultimate identity?

This is where the phrase “anorexia of the soul” sticks the most. Am I living in a way that is taking the literal life out of me? Am I pursuing things that will ultimately have the metaphorical equivalent of Victor Frankenstein’s creature?

Jeremiah 17: 5-6 Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives.

This is where I picture Victor Frankenstein. This is a visual of anorexia of the soul.

Jeremiah 17: 7-8 But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.

This is where I want to find my ultimate identity. In something that gives life that is truly life.

Stop Scuttling!

(If you plan on reading The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, I recommend that you don’t read the following. The ending of the novel is at once incredibly abrupt and incredibly poignant, and I don’t want to assume responsibility for anyone missing that.)

The Inheritance of Loss was a book that didn’t envelop me in its characters or sweep me away with its story, but rather painted pictures of some of the hardest questions that people of modern times are faced with: What do we do with the life we inherit? Does everything come down to economics? Do people actually believe in justice? How can we establish authentic identities? How do we confront poverty? War? Injustice? Selfishness? Racism? Aye. It’s overwhelming.

That word is really the only way I can describe my reading experience of this book. It is a story of interwoven tales in India: a poor boy given the chance to go to America, his father, a cook, who places every ounce of hope in his son. A retired, hard-hearted Judge and his unredeeming back story of why he is so cold (or does it come redeemable if it is the result of forces beyond his control?). His westernized granddaughter, Sai, and her adolescent love affair with her tutor who goes home to life in a hut, who eventually turns on her in the name of rebellion.

It is through the stories of these characters that I, a white, educated American peeked into life in the aftermath of colonialism. For the past month, so many different thoughts have been swirling in my mind and I am uncertain of how to process through and deal with them all. At this point, I have only my thoughts, which I would like to spring into action. At this point, all I can ask is for you, too, to give it some serious thought. There are countless passages I could bring up, but for time’s sake, I will focus on just this one:

“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that is was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous” (page 329).

Here’s what I’m thinking. I have spent a lot of my life avoiding need in the world. It is so easy to put on a mindset of “if I can’t see it, then it must not exist.” And I have to say, that ignorance is often bliss. The longer I live in New York, the harder it is for me to ignore that poverty is real—not only here, but in the global community. I am faced with homelessness everyday. It has to be my choice to deal with it or ignore it. The longer I am a teacher, the more intertwined I have become in the actual lives of kids growing up without parents, without money, without support, without feeling valued. I don’t want to be in a place where I am ignoring reality and scuttling to places, either physical or mental, where poverty doesn’t exist. This is where I am right now.

I mentioned at the beginning that the end of the book is incredibly poignant. Biju is the poor young man who left his father to go to America. His experience in America includes working ridiculous hours in restaurants and sleeping in basement apartments with a dozen other people and rats. Unbeknownst to him, the land where he has grown up becomes ravaged by violent rebellion. Eventually, he decides that he must see his father again. Against the advice of his friends in America, who say that he won’t be able to come back, he returns to India. On his way home, he has to pay off the rebels, who then strip him of all his luggage, earnings and even clothes. He is left to walk to his father in a woman’s night gown. He finally makes it to his father’s:

“Kanchenjunga appeared above the parting clouds, as it did only very early in the morning during this season—
“Biju?” whispered the cook—
“Biju!” he yelled, demented—
Sai looked out and saw two figures leaping at each other as the gate swung open.
The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent.
All you needed to do was reach out and pluck it” (357).

This is the immaterial joy that resonates only from love. This is the immaterial joy that can exist even in the most grim situations. Sigh.

So this is what I’m suggesting:

1. Remember the poor to the point where it forces you to take some proactive steps. Whatever that looks like for you.
2. Treasure your relationships, not your things, most of all—and take the time to examine your heart and mind to the point where you really place people above (fill in the blank).

How do we move forward? On Memory, Part 1

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco is a title that I hesitate to bring up. It is the blasted book that I haven’t been able to finish, which I mentioned in my last post. This is distressing for multiple reasons. One is that it bothers me to leave something hanging incomplete. Character flaw or anal retentiveness? Both? Aye. The other reason is because it was incredibly intriguing when I first began. The main character is a man who suffered a stroke and with it lost his episodic, or autobiographical, memory. (“It’s episodic memory that establishes a link between who we are today and who we have been, and without it, when we say I, we’re referring only to what we are feeling now, not to what we felt before…” page 13). An antique bookseller in his sixties, Yambo can remember how to brush his teeth and drive a car, but cannot remember his wife, children, passions or childhood. The book traces his attempt to recover who he was and if that connects to who he is now post-stroke. Please don’t ask me how it turns out because I don’t know. Yet.

So I have been thinking about the degree to which our experiences, that turn into memories by the minute, influence who we are right now and the decisions and thoughts we have today. Yambo’s experience is the following: “Whatever feelings I once had were no longer mine. I wondered whether I had ever been religious; it was clear, whatever the answer, that I had lost my soul,” (page 21).

Whatever is in my past, good and bad, has shaped the way that I view the world. This is why it makes sense to me that different people understand the world in different ways depending on their experience. It is absolutely frightening to think about not being able to draw upon the past to process what is going on in and around me. In essence, Yambo is in the same position as a baby who has yet to create a framework of understanding. If this happens, is it possible to ever be the “same” person?

I have found myself wanting to wish certain parts of my past out of my memory—be it things that hurt so much to remember, or times where I have hurt someone else. But if I honestly think about that, I think most shadows of my past have—for better or worse, I guess—shaped part of my soul, as Yambo puts it. Who are we without our personal story? Does it matter if we remember every word we have ever read, but forget our narrative? One of the most heart wrenching moments in the book is when Yambo talks about his grandson: “I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro the tiny, the mine,” (page 20).

Romans 8 is making a little more sense to me in light of this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” I was talking with some friends last night about His transformative power and this is where I see it…taking our pasts and producing a person closer to who we were meant to be, as if He knows who we can be and draws it out. We need to have our pasts to see this transformation and how making it through the moments that seem to take the life out of us are what help us to become as we reflect…and that is a good thing. And for that reason alone, I no longer want to white out the parts of my life I wish I could revise.

At the same time, I want to remember the times that have most shaped my soul in a pure, painless (unless you count the heart-hurt of beauty, of course)—the summer air of Ohio, reading Anne of Green Gables and The Chronicles of Narnia, laughing with friends and feeling understood. The sweetness of those memories overwhelms me. I’ll leave you with one more thought from Mysterious Flame: “If you don’t back up, you won’t go forward,” (page 28).

And a post-script: It appears that I only read to page 28. I know I teach 12 year olds, but I try not to be as rash as they are—I did read until page 300. I am currently mustering the strength to make it to 450.