This question has haunted humankind for eons. Most people resolve the issue readily be donning the “suit of clothes” proffered by their family/community but for many of us that necessary “fig leaf” ceases to work at some point and we begin to wrestle with the essential issues of identity inherent in the question. I realize now that assuming an identity in my youth was challenging, even very early before I was even conscious. The angst did not really become conscious until pre-adolescence, then it beat the hell out of me for several decades, before I gained the maturity to begin to wrestle with the issue with an increasingly mature spiritual grasp of the matter.
Now let me reassure you, if you get to even middle age and give too much thought to “who am I?” you might go to your physician and seek a pharmacological easy way out! For the quest to answer that question is a process and the answer will come in realizing that the process…like all things that are “process”…will never be completed. This involves real work, spiritual work, spiritual work that cannot be resolved by the “well-worn and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” even if they come from your favorite holy book!
Here I want to share a lovely poem from a lovely soul that I left behind in Fayetteville, Arkansas just over two years when I moved to Taos, New Mexico, Sue Coppernoll. I did not know her well, but well enough to know she was a fine poet and a keenly sensitive spirit whose spirituality, like mine, had its roots in very conservative fundamentalist Christianity. Here Sue so eloquently captures the fragility of an identity, particularly in its early formulation, and the resolve she had to “carry on” even when life dealt her hard blows.
Worked out with toothpicks
On the royal blue carpet
On the living room floor.
Biting my lip in concentrated effort
Laboriously arranging wooden sticks
Into recognizable patterns.
I have substance.
See, there I am,
Right there on the floor.
That’s me, I exist, I AM.
My baby sister crawls
Onto and through
My toothpick words.
My heart is broken.
I gather up the scattered sticks
To begin again
The construction of my self.
I wish I’d have gotten to know Sue better. This poignant expression of a child’s heart just past the threshold of coming “on line” into conscious existence is riveting. And the child at that point is so vulnerable and the mirroring from “momma” and the rest of the family and world is so critical. But this validation is never perfect and even then Sue recalled having the experience of clinicians call “ego integrity,” allowing her to repair the damage to a particular disappointment. And though, as noted above, I do not know Sue well, I did get to know her well enough to know that life dealt her more than her share of the Shakespearean “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir too” and that she has continued to employ that “ego integrity” and is today a beautiful soul and a beautiful woman. In the terms of Judeo-Christian tradition roots that she and I hailed from it is the “Spirit of God” that provides that “ego integrity” which is a Presence described in the New Testament as that “by which all things cohere”