Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Works-Based Identity

We're continuing our conversation about emotional/psychological well-being in our current culture, particularly as it impacts our young people (remembering, of course, that it's not just them; it's us, too). We've seen how a culture that labels and diagnoses and pathologizes everything sets up walls around us, convinces us we are defective, and prevents us from forming real relationships and community that are vital to our well-being as humans.

Today, we're going to look at the way that these labels send us down a rabbit-hole of always trying to prove ourselves and thinking that our best features are somehow external to ourselves.

When we're convinced that the things about us are defective somehow, that they are a liability, that they have to be labeled and diagnosed and managed, then we become hyper-focused on our performance and we get wrapped up in what others approve of us doing (or don't approve of us doing). 

The young person I was speaking with who sparked this series of reflections for me showed me a work of his/her hands and said, "My dad loves this stuff that I do." I looked this young person right in the eyes and I said, "Maybe. But your dad loves you. Don't ever think it's just because of what you do; he loves you because of who you are." And that looked like news to this young person, who just shook his/her head and continued to walk me through this work of his/her hands. (Stopping, of course, to offer me 'trigger warnings' about every possible feature of the content. Because in a world that has labeled you dangerous to others, everything you do is just as dangerous and must come with a warning.) This young person just shrugged off a genuine love like it was not real or not legitimate or not possible and doubled-down on a performance-based approval. 

Because it was so unfathomable, toting around a barrel of labels, to simply be lovable as a human being. This young person could not comprehend the notion that someone might just love him/her, even someone as near as a father.

But that's what happens when you think you're defective. That's what happens when you think you're broken. That's what happens when you think you're so strange that you're the only one in the world who is ever going to think the way that you do. You can't help but focus all of your attention on the things that you do because you know that if others are looking at you, they are going to be disappointed and disgusted. But maybe if they're looking at something they like, they'll be distracted enough to not have a particular judgment about you.

Honestly, today's young people believe that if you like something they've done, then you like them. They just take that as approval of all the things they're uncertain about about themselves and breathe a little easier because maybe, if they can make something you like, then they aren't as broken and bad as they thought. At the very least, they've made you forget about it for a little bit.

Conversely, of course, if something they do or make isn't your favorite thing, they take that as a personal rejection. It cuts them straight to the core of their soul. Their entire being, the fragile framework they've been trying to build up around all of their insecurities, crumbles.

Which means that when they take the time to show us something they've worked hard on, we have to be diligent and earnest about making sure they do not confuse our message. They will. They will not understand that our love for them is for them and not some work of their hands. They will push back if we try to tell them we love them as a human being. They will not understand if we truly affirm them, but we have to do it anyway. They will certainly not understand if we tell them that their thing is not our thing, that it's not the kind of thing that we like, but we still love them. We have to make clear that you are not what you do; you are who you are, and who you are is beautiful, just the way that God designed you. We need to be clear about this and more clear about it and more clear about it and then, when we finally have their attention, when their walls are starting to soften just enough, when we know that they're listening and that they just might actually hear us, we need to say again those words - you're okay.

I love you because of who you are, not because of what you do. Really, yes really. Yes, I know who you are. Yes, I know what you're wrestling with. Yes, I get that you're a broken human. Nothing you can say will convince me that you ought to come with some kind of warning or that you're nothing more than whatever you've labeled yourself. I see you and you're okay. The work of your hands? It's pretty cool, but only because you are, too. 

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