Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal, though years and miles apart, have something in common – both have felt unable to wear their original identity.
Caitlyn transitioned from the very masculine Olympic athlete Bruce, to a very feminine Caitlyn; Rachel, born to Caucasian parents, presented herself in adult years as an African American.
They just were not comfortable being the person they were identified with at birth.
Their very public stories have opened up a much more honest and challenging conversation about identity. What is it? Where does it come from? Can you fundamentally change it, and do you need to if you are unhappy with it?
Such questions haunt the many who struggle in unhappiness and confusion with their sense of identity, feeling like they do not belong to the gender, race or ethnicity given at birth.
When an individual is unable to feel secure or satisfied in their identity, it can lead to a life of pretence, depression, and in some cases abuse of drugs to cover the mental anguish.
Erik Erikson, a well-known 20th century psychologist, coined the term ‘identity crisis’ to capture the state when a person is conflicted in the face of character development. He believed that the formation of identity usually took place in the teen years and was one of the most important parts of a person’s life.
But we have seen in recent headlines that identity is something that shifts and grows throughout life as we move in and out of relationships, careers and communities and confront new challenges and tackle different experiences.
But does making a change in how we identify ourselves – through our gender, race, ethnicity, hair colour, tattoos or piercings – bring the satisfaction and happiness we seek?
In his research and conclusions, Erikson gave us a glimpse of an answer. He posed that we may see ourselves reflected in the world but our identity has a certain short-term value. Whatever we think we are is ‘nothing but a vague representation of who we really are.’
The turmoil in individual lives, and the public debate over the years, indicate that a sense of identity bound up in some aspect of the body is not a sure foundation for happiness and health. Since the human body is, by its very nature, subject to change, any identity dependent on the body can’t possibly be secure.
Yet, we each yearn for a sense of identity that feels right and secure. Some, who have searched long and hard to feel part of a family, or modified the body to explore new identities, or sought out new careers to find fulfillment, eventually found that identity is much more.
A Biblical scribe asked this identity-defining – yet rhetorical – question: ‘Are we not all the children of the same Father? Are we not all created by the same God?’ (Malachi 2:10)
The idea of God as truly our Creator proved a valuable insight for my friend Sharon when she was suffering from an identity crisis. As an adoptee, she experienced feelings of not knowing who she was or where she came from which brought on low self-esteem and lack of confidence. These feelings negatively impacted her relationships at home and her productivity at work.
Her manager saw her distress and began sharing ideas with her about a different way to view where she came from and who she was. These included the idea that God was her one Creator and she was, thus, complete as his image (as the Bible says). She also gave Sharon a book that, together with the Bible, could help her understand this relationship better.
As my friend studied these two books, she learned how much God loved her and was a permanent presence she could trust in her life. The stress and negative feelings she had harboured for decades – borne of a need to have a society-defined identity – disappeared.
Identifying with our spiritual nature and our original source – not some aspect of our body or our human heritage – enables any one of us to find health and satisfaction in who we truly are.