I am Sue's husband. I am David's father, and Dorothy's son. I am Allen Memorial's pastor and Dan's friend.
These are words I often use to describe myself. I define who I am in terms of my relationships with others, and the way I spend my time. But if all of these markers of my "self" were gone, would my "self" disappear? If I lost my job through retirement or "workforce adjustment," and if I lost my family through divorce or death, would I cease to exist?
Of course not, but it begs the question: Who am I apart from these things? Who am I in essence, alone and separated from these external relationships?
When people lose a loved one or a job, they are often left with this existential question, and it can be frightening. This terrible sense of loss of the self is what comes over you when something or someone by which you define yourself is gone.
You did not start out this way. You started out as your own person. Even as an infant, you confronted the world and demanded to be treated on your own terms. But somewhere along the way, you started to define yourself in other terms, and these terms, these landmarks to which you anchor your life, are no longer available for you.
Soren Kierkegaard, in "A Sickness Unto Death," wrote, "The greatest hazard of all, losing one's self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss - an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. - is sure to be noticed." So there you are, wondering if you even exist, if you have intrinsic value, if you even have pieces of your own to pick up and put back together.
But life is a journey, and if we become lost, we can retrace our steps. The journey of self-discovery is not a side venture, some brief excursion to fill the space between two more important events. It is instead an essential chapter in the greater story of your life.
Regaining that lost self is not only possible, but important for your own health. As Robert Brault said, "Looking back, you realize that a very special person passed briefly through your life, and that person was you. It is not too late to become that person again."
The Bible, which may be another part of your life that needs dusting off and rediscovering, contains helpful tools for the task of self-discovery. It reminds us that we are God's creation. "For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.... My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.... In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed," (Psalms 139:13).
The psalmist was filled with awe but also found comfort, when he wrote, "O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways," (Psalms 139:1-3). There is great comfort in knowing that I am known, even when I myself wonder who I am. It is amazing to consider that someone knows me better than I know myself.
But to what end? When all my purposes in life are gone (or at least hidden), do I still have value? Again the scriptures answer in the affirmative. God sees value when we cannot. While we were still sinners (i.e., lost), Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
As with any commodity, the value of your life is defined by the price someone is willing to pay for it. So to the labels I apply to myself, I add one more that can never be taken away. I am a child of God, redeemed by Christ's blood. Anchored in this truth, the journey of self-discovery brings peace in troubled times.
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.