Identity is a spiritual matter to my mind, as my spirituality is an intrinsic aspect of who I am.
T.S. Eliot wrote that “here and now cease to matter” – and I wonder if one of the problems with modern concerns about identity are about an obsession with the “here and now”.
“What am I thinking and feeling here and now?” might be the preoccupation of an anxious person – whereas the idea that thoughts and feelings are temporary and fleeting gives us a sense of perspective and the reassurance that existence embraces much longer periods of time.
This led me to consider how we construct our identities beyond the here and now – with reference to the past, and to the future.
It is obvious that we are shaped by our pasts. Some have had traumatic pasts which leave a present which is problematic because of things that happened years and years ago.
Many of us learn valuable lessons because of past experiences we have been through. Some of us have been lucky to have had inspiring families, role-models, teachers and leaders, who have nurtured us and provided us with principles and practical coaching in various character strengths.
But we are also influenced by more distant pasts, whether or not we are aware of it. The culture we are born into was shaped by hundreds and thousands of years.
Our genes have been shaped by thousands, perhaps millions of years. What we read may have been written by people who died many years before we were born.
For myself, I think of books by my “inspirers”, and others: writings by wise leaders, on spirituality, philosophical and ethical ideas by the great thinkers of history, of passages in the greatest world poetry and literature.
These treasured contributions to culture have shaped my identity. I go back to them time and time again, and they continue to shape and form my identity. They are a wellspring of inspiration and guidance. My identity is forged well beyond the here and now by these thought leaders of the past.
And then there is the future: the contribution that our own goals, ambitions and hopes make to our sense of identity. I have been much influenced by Stephen Covey’s book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” – he demonstrates how each of us has the power of decision-making, regardless of our past and present circumstances. It is a challenging idea, as it does not allow us to look upon ourselves as victims of circumstance. We have to own our reactions. There is always a gap – as he says – between stimulus and our response to it.
This means that every decision I make in the present about the future is my own free choice. My future identity is in my hands. I am choosing whether I become a better person each day, or the opposite. My thoughts about the future – optimistic or gloomy, hopeful or depressing – play a huge part in influencing my beliefs about myself and my identity.
Identity turns out to be very complex : a merging of the past and the future with the present.
Identity is a journey – a fascinating journey – perhaps one of the quintessential journeys we make as human beings.
And many of the answers are to be found beyond the here and now.
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.”
(T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets)