Three lies of identity


When I wake up, and throughout the day, there are moments where my heart is filled with stress and anxiety. In years past I would just accept the stress as normal. I would ignore the mental tape that was playing behind the stress. I would believe the lies.

The lies would then become truth.

Recently I heard a brilliant quote from Fr. Henry Nouwen on the "Three lies of identity". They are:

  1. I am what I have
  2. I am what I do
  3. I am what others think of me

Through contemplative practices like meditation and centering prayer, I have become more aware of these thoughts, these lies, and the memories they are rooted in for me.

I am what I have

Eleven years ago in December, my wife, daughter, and I moved back to the United States from the Dominican Republic. We left the only life we knew as a couple. Because we were poor financially, we were unable to bring back most of our material possessions that we had accumulated in our time there. This meant that most of our wedding gifts were sold and left in the country. It was a gut wrenching time to decide what we could pack in our precious bags and what we would sell. It was even more gut wrenching to watch people rummage through our possessions, haggle with us on prices, or wait until we had no other options then low-ball the prices.

We moved back to the United States with a few thousand dollars cash and several suitcases filled with clothes and precious keepsakes. When we arrived in Kulm, several members of the community had put together basics in a house for us, including some simple decorations for different rooms. It made us feel welcome and loved.

I spent the next several years trying to survive. I focused on finding the right job and providing for my family. Opportunities came and I capitalized on them. I began to run a business while working full time. Financially this started to pay off and I was making six figures. We started taking trips. I bought cigars and expensive scotches. I bought two vehicles in one day, paying cash for both of them.

As I continued down this path, I felt empty and unfulfilled. My life lacked purpose. I was angry, unsettled, and felt lost. I beat myself up, because I shouldn't be feeling this way when I had everything I wanted.

I am what I do

I blamed my emptiness on my jobs. What I was doing didn't reflect my passion, and who I was. I sought validation in my knowledge and ability to make money. I changed jobs, sold my business.

This journey was (and is painful). The past three years have been a daily journey of unlearning the identity I have built up in my work and activities. It's a work in progress. In fact, it's difficult to write about it with great depth here right now.

I've lost jobs, had work threatened, built up successful businesses and community events. What I've learned is that there's a razor's edge between faithful service, and making it all about you. The only answer I've found is to be present in each moment, giving my activities and life back to Christ daily, or several times each day...dying to myself.

I am what others think of me

This is the one that I like to say is easiest for me, yet in reality it's the most difficult. I put on this veil of false humility, saying that the attention doesn't matter...but it still does. I don't deliberately seek it out, but I enjoy when it comes my way.

Even worse is the thought of being embarrassed. What if my business fails? What if people see XYZ or ABC about me?

I see time and time again that life is putting situations, people, and trials in front of me to test each of these three lies. Some days I do well with them and learn lessons. Other days I wallow in self-pity and let anxiety envelop me.

I share these thoughts here for a few reasons.

Number one it's a way for me to expose my weaknesses and test the three lies. It's why I'm writing paragraphs about my anxiety, failures, and misgivings at 6 am on a Sunday.

Number two, I hope it can be encouraging for you. In our age of social media we are often presented with "picture-perfect" lives. Brushed up images, inspirational quotes, and standards that nobody can live up to. I hope by being real about my own struggles it will give you validation of your own and some courage to break free from the cycle.

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