Who do you think you are? (Identity)

Who do you think you are?

I wrote most of this last summer, some of it taken from an article I wrote in 2004, and a later assignment on the impact of chronic illness on identity and the sense of self which I wrote for my MA in counselling in 2009. Somehow last summer the time didn’t seem right to publish it.

Then I started thinking about identity in the context of the Lent course I was writing which is based on the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus. In our current situation it feels as though it might now be very relevant to a lot of people whose lives have been turned upside down with little warning, and who are suddenly finding themselves asking the same question


Who am I?

1986: I am…a violinist, an Oxford student, a linguist, a high-flyer, a future high-earner, wife, mother. I love travel, books, concerts, theatre, socialising, cooking, running, driving, sailing, swimming, public-speaking, debating…

1989-1995 (and beyond): I am…in bed, housebound, using a wheelchair, unable to care for myself, living with my parents, on benefits, dependent, exhausted, sick, weak, in pain: unable to lift my violin; unable to read a book; struggling to hold a conversation; barely able to walk…

Who am I now?

Ill, disabled…in-valid.

In 1989 I swapped my identity as a high-achieving Oxford student for that of a long-term-sick benefit claimant, dependent on state handouts to survive (though arguably, in the age of university grants, I was already doing that as a student!). It was a dizzying fall from membership of a social elite to membership of a social underclass: one that is insulted and denigrated by the popular press and politicians alike; one that attracts personal attacks, both from people I know, and from some who are complete strangers. 

For three years from 1996 I somehow combined the two as I finished my degree from my bed, which was strangely satisfying in terms of confounding stereotypes and proving to myself – and others – that these classifications said little of real meaning about my core identity, value, and worth, and were not polar opposites at all. 

As I gradually lost, in my early twenties, my ability to do all the things I loved, and which had previously filled my life, it felt as though I was also losing my identity. My sense of who I was, was shaken to the core. I had always defined myself by the things I did.

‘It’s strange!’ said one of my sisters, ‘You used to be good at everything but now you can’t do anything at all.’

But I was still the same person. Wasn’t I?

What do you do? we ask people. Where do you work? Are you married? Do you have children? What are your hobbies? It is part of getting to know someone and we are naturally interested in these things. They help us to build a picture of someone, give us clues about someone’s life, their personality, their interests, help us to know them better, to work out what we have in common, what to talk about. But who am I if I can’t actually do anything?

It is natural, and tempting, to define ourselves by what we do, our work roles, our interests and leisure activities, our relationships with others – wife, husband, mother, father – but it is risky. These things are temporary and insecure, not fixed and timeless. If our identity is based on these then what is left if they are taken away?

Suddenly, all over the world, people who have never before had to face this question are finding that they feel lost, unsure of their identity and worth, lacking a sense of self, wondering who they are if they cannot, for now at least, do the things they usually do. Losing all at once, our work role, our social life, our time with friends, our interests and hobbies beyond the home, our freedom and independence, can be devastating to our sense of who we are and leave us feeling lost and uprooted, cast adrift: at times overwhelmed with grief, fear, anger, or frustration.

Was I really ‘just an ill person’ with no other identity once I was totally dependent on others, back living with my parents, having had to give up my degree, leave Oxford, stop playing my violin? Surely not?

Identity and self-esteem are so closely entwined that it can be hard to disentangle them. Lose your sense of who you are and you can quickly lose the belief that you still have value even when you cannot actually do anything. 

I was fortunate. I had a deep Christian faith and knew, in theory at least, that God loved and valued me for who I was, not for what I did. And I had grown up in a loving home where love and approval were not based on achievement. When I became really unwell I rapidly discovered that I had a family and friends who continued to love and value me just the same, even when I could no longer do any of the things which seemed so important for defining who I was.

The things we do are expressions of our personalities, character, identity. They may be part of what makes us who we are but they aren’t, in themselves, intrinsic to our identity. Take them away and we have an opportunity, hard though it may be, to really discover who we are. What is there that endures? How can we build our identity on something more solid; develop a secure sense of self which, though it may be moulded by them, will not be badly shaken by the vicissitudes of life?

And which of the things we previously thought were central to our identity, that we have temporarily been forced to let go of, do we actually want to pick up again when all this is over?

The Christian faith teaches us that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do. God offers us a relationship with him, through Christ; a new identity as his children, based on his grace and forgiveness.

When the temporary things of this life fall away – our jobs, our hobbies, our plans, our dreams, our social life, our freedom to go out and do what we choose, even our relationships and marital status – we are left with eternal truths about our identity which will never fail: we are children of a loving God, part of his family, brothers and sisters in Christ; we are loved, valued, and significant, even if we can do nothing; we are sons and daughters of the King of Kings and we are invited to live our lives in relationship with him.

When we find our identity in him we can know that this, and only this, is solid and unchanging, and nothing that happens in this world can take that identity away from us.


6 thoughts on “Who do you think you are? (Identity)

  1. Dear Alison, this is so good! Thank you! Christine

    Revd Christine Sandiford St James & Emmanuel Didsbury Telephone (UK) 0161 434 1343

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your account of your descent from the accomplishments in which others may see a self-sufficiency to a place they may/do regard with pity is deeply moving. So is the dependence you gladly acknowledge on Him who accepts and loves us all, unconditionally and wholeheartedly. Thank you and may He continue to bless you and your ministry to us all.

    Liked by 1 person

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