All people continually search for their identities. Regardless of whether we are administrators or first-year students, faculty or staff, old or young, well or ill, rich or poor, what we do or don't do, we are all continually defining and, even re-defining, who we are for others and for ourselves. Early in our lives, we are influenced by the ways others define us, but as we mature, we have the opportunities to redefine who we are. Our identities, how we perceive ourselves, direct the way we act and react to others and motivate what we do.
In our culture, our identity is usually defined by the many categories we find in surveys and demographical descriptions. We are put into boxes including, among many others distinctions, job, race, religion and economic standing. If we listen carefully to the ways people introduce themselves, we will also hear the ways they define themselves. Usually, a self-introduction contains the person's name and occupation or position in an organization, or their major in our University context. Most of us seem to think of ourselves as what we do.
If our identity is primarily role-based, we tend to do things which reinforce that part of us which strengthens our role in the eyes of others. We can become self-centered by being concerned in the ways we and our actions are perceived by others. Our image — what we do — becomes more important than who we are. By being what we do, we find that we are not free to think of ourselves in other roles, particularly as we and those roles change and develop. Being who we are is far more important.
St. Ignatius understood that we are more than what we do or don't do. In his Spiritual Exercises, he states in the Principle and Foundation that humans are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save their souls. He explains further that being rich or poor, healthy or ill, honored or dishonored, are not the important parts of life if they do not allow us freely to choose to "praise, reverence and serve" God, and others. The important identity for all people is that we are all created children of God, with goals beyond ourselves. Everything else is frosting on the already delicious cake.
Ignatius challenges us to think about ourselves differently. He asks us to examine ourselves critically who we think we are in the light of some fundamental principles. Ignatius presents an identity which allows us to define ourselves beyond ourselves and beyond what others may think of us. He offers us real freedom to go beyond the definitions which may imprison us and limit us to what we do. He offers us the freedom to define ourselves beyond the limitations of our own, and others', definitions and limitations.
As we continue our semester let us not only take stock of how we're doing from the perspective of our present identity, but let us also regularly examine that identity. Are we happy with our present identity or can we imagine ourselves differently? How/What/Who can we become? Are the ways we now think about ourselves sources of freedom or do they imprison us in ways of thinking and acting which constrain and limit and hold us back?
Above all, let us listen to God, ourselves and even each other for the ways to define ourselves that are truly part of who we are and take us far beyond what we do.
A. M. D. G.
- D. Highberger, S.J.
- P. Stark, S.J.