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How Do We Define Ourselves?

The dictionary has always been a great source of information for me. And believing in the “life-long student” philosophy, it’s one of the first places I turn to find some parameters of anything new that comes along. Often times though, I feel that definitions in a dictionary fall short of the true meaning of a given word or situation. But no matter how confining a given definition may be, it gives me a point of reference, a place to start.

This strategy of defining things isn’t new. It seems to be an inherent mechanism of humanity. It’s a common tool used in our ability to understand the world we live in. Check the definition of the word definition: a statement of limits or meaning; the condition of being clearly outlined. If we can clearly outline the limits of any given thing, we assume we can understand it. Unfortunately, we view one another in the same manner. We characterize and categorize each other daily. Marketing firms are built on their ability to define mass groups of people to be favorable for this product or that experience. Given a choice, I believe most of us would find our definitions of who we are rather confining. And understandably so. How we are defined is a snapshot of our very identity, isn’t it?

Running With The Pack

Sherron Watkins felt confined. She worked for the seventh largest company in the United States as vice president of corporate development. She had no problem defining who she was. No, the problem was in the fact that the company she worked for, Enron, took to practicing shady business deals and alleged bookkeeping irregularities. And being a professed Christian believer, she didn’t want to be found guilty by association. She blew the whistle on the backroom activities and corporate America is still feeling the ripple effect of that decision.

In his book, The Tao of Enron, author and pastor Chris Seay noted: “At Enron, many workers found their Monday selves in desperate conflict with the selves they had taken to church only a day before. In fact, the culture at Enron encouraged many employees to leave their moral compasses at the front security desk and embrace ‘the Enron way.’”

Sherron Watkins is now defined by society as having courage and integrity, something she had defined in herself long before. Undoubtedly, there were others who felt the business practices Enron engaged in compromised who they felt they were. But because of their willingness to run with the pack, they are now confined to the definition of those who looked the other way.

Drawing Our Own Lines

At some point we all ask ourselves, “Who am I?” The college years especially are often a time of self-discovery. For many, it’s a first time of being away from the influences parents and family. We step into a world where often the only boundaries we find are the ones we impose on ourselves. And how many of us know someone who hasn’t done a very good job of that? Then slowly but surely, the decisions we make, the “packs” we run with and the experiences we find ourselves in all work to define us to the world.

Many of us would consider that unfair. To be labeled to be this or that while we ourselves aren’t sure seems premature at best. While there is the occasional “victim of circumstance” situation, the majority of the course of our lives is charted by the decisions we make. And that is precisely where we have the opportunity of clearly defining who we are. We either intentionally display what we are made of, draw those lines we refuse to cross (our boundaries), or passively accept the labels the world is all too willing to hand out.

This Is Your Life

Jon Foreman, lead singer for the band Switchfoot, is in my opinion one of today’s most thought-provoking songwriters. When I listen to Switchfoot’s music, I hear society. Foreman is very good at capturing what I feel is society’s cry. Not pretty poetry or sentimental love songs, but the thoughts and feelings of where people live day to day. He’s written a song called “This Is Your Life” in which he asks, This is your life, are you who you want to be? This is your life, is it everything you dreamed that it would be? Most of us wouldn’t be able to answer that question with a resounding “yes!” But we could give a list of reasons why we aren’t living the life we hoped for, or why we don’t see much of a chance that we will. Most of those answers would center on circumstances that have happened or are currently keeping us from achieving that life.

But I think it’s our own fault. I think our dreams are too small. Too often, we set goals that can be easily attained if we just apply ourselves. Trust me, we were made for much bigger things than our minds can imagine. Many people define themselves by their past and are therefore stuck, unable to move ahead. And while the past can be a place of learning, we are responsible for our own futures. Most of us take our cues from this world, instead of the One who made it. The best this world can offer us is circumstance and expectation, while the One who made it offers purpose, direction, meaning and endless hope.

Going To The Source

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, said, “The world will ask who you are. And if you do not know, the world will tell you.” Carl Jung wasn’t a Christian, but he was a seeker. His search led him to occultism and different eastern religions before his death. Many of us, either currently or at some time, have been seekers as well. Being a seeker of the truth isn’t a bad definition to have, if you’re looking in the right places. But perhaps Mr. Jung’s pursuit is evidence again that all this world has to offer is confining, and freedom only comes in finding who we truly are, defined by the One who created us.

See Also

When you want the straight dish on something, you go to the source. The source for a definition of who we are would be God, the Creator Himself. The One who breathed life into us and knows all of our days and the hairs on our heads. He alone can tell you who you are and why you’re here. Now it’s been my experience that He doesn’t do that all at once. And that doesn’t sit well with today’s microwave, instant gratification society. But a sustained relationship with Him will, in time, reveal who you really are. And don’t worry; the Bible says that those who seek Him will find Him.

You are defined by your values, beliefs, ideals and commitments. Those must become the non-negotiables of your life if you want to be the one making the definition. If those things aren’t solidly set, when the world asks you about them—and it will—prepare to be told who you are.

[Tom Mulnix is the Worship Director at Aldersgate Church in Lubbock, Texas. He is married with three daughters and loves playing the guitar and songwriting.]

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