There is a question that younger people ask frequently that those of an older generation rarely thought of asking. It’s the age-old identity question, ‘who am I’ and the Gospel today is all about identity. Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am.’ It wasn’t that he cared a great deal what anyone thought since he was so much his own person. Yet he did ask, what is the opinion others have about me? It was an easy one for them to answer, ‘some say John the Baptist and others Elijah’. He used that to ask the bigger question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ To which Peter is able to give his big confession of faith, ‘You are the Christ the son of the living God’.
How could those questions apply not just to Christ but also to ourselves. Who do people say that I am is really the question of the way society tends to look at us and in a manner that’s far from being fair to the vast majority? Society tends to value us in terms of social background and makes distinctions on the basis of where we come from. Our address is considered important and becomes a factor in our identity. Our family of origin is also a big consideration, we are important to the extent that our family of origin is considered important and respectable. There are those born of good stock, middling stock and not so good stock. Our body image is another determinant as to whether we are looked up to or not. Those blessed with good looks tend to be valued more, get better jobs and command the admiration of others. Then whether we are rich or poor is a big factor in terms of whether we hold standing in the eyes of the world. Whether we are productive and useful is another factor.
Our worth in the eyes of society tends to be seen in terms of what we own or in some cases what we owe! Image is all important, the size of the house we live in, the latest model of car that we drive, the designer clothes that we wear, those we socialize with and in some cases where we do our shopping.
Then there’s the question of how those closest to us see us. Those we rub shoulders with on a daily basis. So many live their lives never, if ever, being true to themselves, because they are always trying to be what others want them to be. Life is seriously stressful because it is a continuous act of looking over the shoulder to see how someone else is reacting. They always look into the eyes of others to see whether they have any real worth. These are the people pleasers who are unable to say ‘no’ because someone might not like them for doing so. They are also the approval addicts who desperately need the admiration of others in order to feel good about themselves. The extroverts in this group often get caught up in an image of having to be the life and soul of the party while the introverts retreat under a shell of shyness. The power to truly be oneself and live ones own life is never exercised because it is always given away to others. To allow ourselves to be controlled by another human being is a frightening prospect and utterly unwise.
The positive side is that those closest to us often will see something in us that we can’t see in ourselves, a hidden talent or potential, and these can awaken good in us we never knew existed. These are the ones who by their encouragement set us free to become more than we are and more than we ever thought that we could be.
Then there’s the big question of who do we think that we are ourselves. In our early years our sense of self comes from others and the things they say to us. A parent who tells us we are clumsy, useless or good for nothing or a teacher who tells us we are stupid can destroy our confidence and block our potential. Visitors to Asia are often puzzelled to see a six ton elephant tied by a rope round its leg to a tiny stake in the ground with the same animal being capable of uprooting trees weighing several tons. As a baby elephant it was tied by its leg to a stake when that was sufficient to hold it there. Later as an adult with all its strength it still believes itself to be incapable and so it never tries. A childhood remark can hold us fettered for a lifetime.
Its far too easy to value oneself in terms of what I do but we forget that one day we will be capable of very little so who will we be then. I was ordained 40 years ago and we were taught then that our identity lay in being a priest. How wrong was that. I am not what I do but what I do is an expression of who I am.
For parents and particularly mothers it’s very easy to define who I am in terms of being so and so’s wife or mother but the day comes when the fledglings leave the nest and then who am I? If I have made some serious mistakes and messed up my life its all too easy to think that my mistakes make up who I am and spend the rest of my life beating myself up. A lot of material things that can give a false sense of security where I believe that I am somebody because of what I own. Finally if my body is getting old or I have a condition that leaves me in a lot of pain its very easy to think that this is me and there’s not much more to me . I am the way I feel and have very little value simply because at this stage I really can’t offer all that much.
Whatever society may think we are; whatever others may think of us and whatever we may think we are ourselves is never the full picture nor does it bear the slightest resemblance to the full picture. St. Paul says that ‘we are already the sons and daughters of God and what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed but all that we know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.’ Peter got just a glimpse of that reality when he said ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God.’ Not only that but when he got a grasp of who Christ was he got a glimpse of who he was as well.