Who are you? Growing up as a Chinese in Malaysia in the ’60s and ’70s, my father would periodically remind me that I am a Chinese in a Malay world and I needed to work extra hard to survive and to thrive. There was little talk of emigration in those days. You just assume you will live your life in Malaysia. My father helped me define my identity — Chinese — which then shaped how I was to live — by working hard. Identity shapes life. Who we think we are shapes how we live. So, who are we?
In his book Who Are We, Gary Younge writes:
Identities are about ourselves in relation to others. But these thoughts do not come out of a clear blue sky. Identities are rooted in material circumstances. In certain circumstances, whether you are British, black, gay, Iraqi Hindu or female can be the difference between life and death, poverty and wealth, citizenship and statelessness. Power, resources and opportunity are in play in how we understand (or misunderstand) the value of ourselves and others. (Gary Younge, Who Are We? [New York, NY: Bold Type Books, 2010], 230.)
Who we think we are not only shapes what we do but also shapes how we relate to others. So, who are we?
Many would agree that we discover who we are in interaction with others. Followers of Jesus would say that we are who we are as defined by God our Creator, Saviour and Lord. At Jesus’ baptism, God the Father told Jesus both His identity and His value. Jesus was God’s Son, beloved and treasured (Luke 3:21–22). Followers of Jesus in turn are also children of God (Romans 8:14–17; 28–30) and beloved of the Father (1 John 3:1) This then is our main identity — we are beloved children of the living God. This truth shapes how we live and how we relate to others.
But Christians, like almost everyone else today, are bombarded by many who want to push an identity on us; often so that they can recruit us to their causes. Social media also has the power to shape identity and we are often reduced to a less-than-human avatar as we end up identifying with the persona we present in social media. A dear friend who has the pulse of unfolding communication technology recently warned me that there is the real danger of forgetting our very humanity. He said that spiritual friendship is more vital than ever because one thing good friends do for each other is to help us embrace, remember, and live out who we really are.
In my main go-to book on spiritual friendship, Becoming Friends, Paul J. Wadell writes:
One of the great gifts of a good friendship is that each friend helps the other grow in freedom by helping them be more fully and authentically who they are called to be. Friends have insight into each other. In fact sometimes friends see us better than we see ourselves. Because they want what is best for us, they use the knowledge they have of us not only to call us to our best self but to help us be our best self. (Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends [Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002], 58.)
Do you have friends like that in your life? Are you a friend like that to anyone? We need such friendships more than ever.
. . . we need a place where we can invest ourselves deeply in others, come to care about their flourishing, and give ourselves away in mutual service and sacrifice in ways that secure our own identities instead of erasing them. (Andy Crouch, The Life We’re Looking For [New York, NY: Convergent, 2022], 150–151.)
It seems that when we lovingly help our friends remember their identities and help them flourish, we secure our own identities and our own flourishing.
As Mark Yaconelli reminds us:
In another time, in another setting, sitting together around a table and sharing stories was as necessary to human life as bread and water. Story telling was our source of identity, connecting us to our passions, our daily work, the people we encountered, the land we inhabited. (Mark Yaconelli, Between the Listening and the Telling [Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2022], 5.)
We are long overdue for a revolution of friendship if we are not to forget who we are. Are you in?