Jun 19, 2015

As the Caterpillar Said, "Who Are You?" (From the Archives)

Thanks to people like Bruce Jenner and Rachel Dolazel the topic of identity (can it be self-chosen? what if it clashes with reality?) is all over the news right new. Even during less controversial times, summer can be a time in which many people's identities seem to change. Students who used to be fourth graders prepare to become fifth graders, college seniors leave school behind and enter the workforce, and busy employees finally go on vacation and have time to ponder their trajectory in life. As we ask ourselves who we are, it can be incredibly freeing to find identity through our vocations instead of through our own desires, tastes, and preferences. Here is a post that first ran last July and is well worth re-visiting.

By Heather Judd

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.  
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.  Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”  
"What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly.  “Explain yourself!” 
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” 
“I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar. 
“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with . . .”

Rarely in our daily lives do we run into hookah-smoking caterpillars, or anyone, really, who demands, “Who are you?”  Most of the time, the world does not ask the question explicitly, but the implicit question ripples under nearly every hour of our lives. 

We attend a party and are obliged to introduce ourselves.  We visit a church while on vacation and have to explain why we came.  We apply for a job and submit a résumé describing our qualifications.  We log into Facebook and choose what status to share.  We write an article for a blog and have to submit a bio that sums up who we are! 

Every time we face an audience with whom we are not acquainted, the implicit question rises again:  Who are you?  And every time we answer that implied question, we choose how we will identify ourselves.  In our global, electronically-connected culture, interaction with strangers is so common that identity-sculpting has become a high art.  With every new interaction we select which incidents of our lives to display and which to stuff into our closets to keep the skeletons company.  As a result, “who I am” at church may be quite different from “who I am” at home, which may be radically different yet from “who I am” on Facebook.

That’s not all bad.  It is proper to reveal different aspects of oneself to, say, the grocery clerk and one’s husband. Moreover, a certain amount of conscientious “choosing” is beneficial in molding our own character as we practice self-control and refrain from whining, criticizing, etc.  Still, this selective identity-crafting only dances around that thrumming question:  Who are you?

Our society has an identity crisis.  There was a time when the very idea would have been laughable.  From antiquity through the Middle Ages, identity was primarily defined in terms of family connections.   Our modern eyes skim over Biblical or epic genealogies, but the ancients were keenly interested in who begat whom, because their own identity was tied up in this knowledge. The individualism of the modern era shudders at such an idea of identity.  It’s practically un-American to define oneself by lineage, and Feminism in particular is on the alert lest women define themselves in relation to men.  How oppressive that women be thought of as daughters or sisters or mothers or wives!

The problems with such an extreme, individualistic view of identity are revealed as we all set out on solitary quests to discover our true identities.  Cut off and adrift, I look inside myself.  It’s a mess in there.  Like Alice, I can’t say that I’m the same person I was when I woke up this morning, let alone the same person as yesterday or ten years ago.  So I look outward.  Out there, however, I can’t decide what my one true calling is, or if I do decide, I can’t manage to bring it to fruition, or if I do manage to bring it to fruition, someone else is already doing the same thing better than I. 

This identity crisis is a real problem, according to the world, which says I cannot Begin Living until I know Who I Am.  And since (as the world defines it) life is not something we are given but rather something we must craft for ourselves, we become a society of walking dead, pretending desperately that something matters or makes sense, all while wondering: Who am I, really?

The truth is, it is impossible to determine who you are without putting yourself in relation to others.  It’s like trying to reorient yourself while adrift in space; you simply cannot do it without something to push off of.  Identity, the most uniquely personal quality, requires relationship.     

Thus, there is only One human being for Whom “I Am” is a complete description of identity.  For all the rest of us, the being verb requires a complement.  So, “I am a daughter,” “I am a sister,” “I am a teacher” are all good, healthy ways not only for others to understand my identity but for me to understand my identity.  How freeing it is not to have to choose, but rather to be given an identity.  This is the comfort of the doctrine of vocation.  Without my effort, without my choosing, I am called to serve in relation to my neighbors, and those relationships help me understand who I am. 

My pastor frequently reminds me that freedom is only found within vocation.  That is to say, when I start yearning to be something other than a teacher, a daughter, a sister, I am enslaving myself to the illusory desires of the sinful nature.  However, when I strive to fulfill my vocations to the utmost, I am fully within the command of God, which is precisely where true freedom is found. 

Yet, the identity of vocation is far richer than learning to find contentment within a prescribed role, for there is this other truth: You are unique.  From conception in your mother’s womb, you are distinct from every other person.  Throughout your life, you live in a different combination of places and times than any other human being. 

In this way, vocation is also incarnational.  It is “in the flesh.”  It is in your flesh.  God put you in this place at this time, and whatever vocations He has given you will be carried out in this particular place and time by no other person.  It means that for this year of their education, the students in my classroom have me as their teacher.  They cannot repeat this year of their life with some other person to carry out that vocation, and whatever is accomplished and however things fall short, it will be done through me.  ­­

Amazingly empowering but stunningly weighty is this view of identity through vocation.  It is freeing, but the very grandeur of it can also draw us into despair.  When as a daughter I do not love and honor my parents, or when as a teacher I lose my temper or slough my duties, my vocation-enwrapped identity threatens to collapse.

It is at such a time that I am drawn to Christ Himself, the source of my deepest, truest identity:  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. . . . And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:27, 29)  In Him, I have an identity that will last throughout eternity:  I am a baptized and forgiven child of Christ.  I am a royal daughter of the King of Kings.  I am heir of all the riches of the Kingdom of God.  


Heather Judd is currently a sister, daughter, and teacher in a classical, Lutheran school in Wyoming.  The last of these vocations demonstrates the divine sense of irony since she (a) was homeschooled for her entire K-12 education, (b) only became a classical education enthusiast after earning her B.A. in education, (c) attended just about every denomination except Lutheran growing up,  and (d) had never been to Wyoming before moving there for the teaching call.  When she is not spending time in the eccentric world of middle school students, she enjoys reading, writing, acting, baking, playing organ, and pondering the mysteries of theology, physics, and literature.  

Title Image: "Alice and the Caterpillar" by Helen Jacobs

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