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Identity through one’s place in a story


Who are you? What are you known for? These are questions asked in search of personal identity.

To answer this question, let’s start with a seemingly difficult case. What is the identity of God?

Deuteronomy 5: 6 answers this question in a direct way. Introducing God to the Hebrew people, its author (quoting God) says: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” In other words, God is a character in a story told in the book of Exodus. He is a personality who caused miracles to happen through Moses’ agency at the court of Pharaoh. He caused the waters of the Red Sea to part so that the Hebrew people could flee Egypt ahead of Pharaoh’s armies.

One sees this message repeated several times in Deuteronomy. For example, in the 20th chapter, verse one, it is written: “When you take the field against an enemy and are faced by horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, will be with you.” God can repeat the story of military intervention, if need be.

Again, in Deuteronomy 4: 20, it is written: “But you are the people whom the Lord brought out of Egypt, from the smelting-furnace, and took for his own possession, as you are to this day.” Besides God, the Hebrew people were a character in the Exodus story. They are here identified as God’s “possession”. The story of Exodus establishes a relationship between God and his people. God is not merely a tribal spirit but an authority who spoke through Moses to bind future generations in a certain way.

Other parts of the story strengthen this obligation. When Moses was on the mountain top, the Hebrews built an idol to worship in the form of a golden calf. The Hebrews are naturally unruly. They need the discipline of strict obedience to God’s word. God also delivered a promise to Abraham that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan forever. The Hebrews under Moses needed to return to Canaan and, under Joshua, seize it from the current inhabitants. The identity of the Hebrew people was associated with this promise. The promise was delivered in a story.

To generalize from this insight, one might say that I, you, or we are what we are from the stories in which we have participated. It is not just any story but the significant story or stories which usually tell of a struggle of some sort.

For example, the American people might be identified by the following sets of stories: They came from Europe (or Africa) to live in a sparsely populated territory covered by forests which were inhabited by Indian peoples. They rebelled against their colonial master, England, to win independence in a perilous war. They formed a new democratic nation which was organized by a Constitution written at Philadelphia. In the mid 19th century, two sections of this nation went to war with each other over the issues of states rights (or national integrity) and slavery. Each part of American history adds something to our national identity.

On the level of individuals, the stories are not so dramatic and important. Even so, personal identity comes from remembered experiences which each of us has. They are our “formative experiences”, usually had in the early years of life. Then, too, there are experiences which shape others’ idea of us. We are “known” for something. It is not always what we would want as our legacy.

For example, Harold Stassen was a three-term Governor of Minnesota. As governor, he was a great innovator and reformer. Then, in the mid 1940s, he was one of the principal architects of the United Nations. He wrote an influential magazine article about this proposed institution, and he was part of the U.S. delegation to the conference in San Francisco which created it in 1945. How is Stassen remembered? He is not remembered for these major accomplishments but for the fact that, after 1948, he ran for President in a series of futile campaigns. Harold Stassen has become a figure of ridicule for his unrealistic ambition to hold the nation’s highest office long after his opportunity had passed.

I, too, ran for President having no realistic chance of election and, like Stassen, have gained mostly ridicule for those efforts. In fact, my campaign in Louisiana’s 2004 Democratic presidential primary was a personally enriching experience. It was a highlight of my life; but others do not see it that way. They see me as a deluded egotist for having made the effort. I say, this is more a reflection on them than on me. People today are cynical and conservative in their personal aspirations.

That is why we need identity independence. Ultimately, I am the judge of which stories ought to be included in my formative history; and you are the judge of which stories belong to yours. But we have to fight against the purveyors of personal gossip who wish us ill. On a larger level, we have to fight against the journalists, pundits, historians, and opinion makers who try to fit us into their framework of a significant story, not caring about our point of view.

Even so, our identities begin with personal action. We have done something which shapes our idea of ourselves. Sometimes, we associate action with activity in an occupation or career. I am an accountant or a brick layer. Repetitively, I do certain things in the course of my job; and that makes me what I am: a brick layer. But the significant part of personal identity is what I myself have contributed rather than what results from the condition of my employment. This identity comes from my innermost spirit.

For some people (who are intellectuals), personal identity may be associated with what the person thinks (rather than does). Albert Einstein came up with the theory of relativity and the formula e=mc2 (squared). He thought of those ideas and that is how we remember him. Likewise, Plato was a philosopher associated with the theory of ideas or form, with the myth of Atlantis, and with an ideal community described in the Republic. Those ideas are part of his historical identity.

Then there are artists and writers who create works that people remember. Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was also a sculptor who created the statue of David in Florence and the Pieta at St. Peter’s church in the Vatican. William Shakespeare was a playwright whose works included Hamlet, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and the Tempest. He was also a poet who wrote sonnets. His identity in today’s memory comes chiefly from what he was able to imagine and create with words. Writing was a form of thoughtful activity.

In conclusion, if we want a certain identity, we must do something to lay its foundation. Merely to decide that we are a certain person will not be enough. We each need to go out into the world and project our own purposes into it through action and let the world respond. The world will be different because of this; and so will we. Life will then be a series of adventures that changes us at each step of the way, adding new remembrances and layers of identity.

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