Shortly after our cross-country move it became financially necessary to sell my car. My wife was underemployed; I was unemployed. Following the sale, I experienced a sense of loss and grief.
Living in a city with excellent mass transit, getting around was not the source of my sadness. Just as previous times in my life, I felt a sense of liberation using public options for getting around. My embarrassment (is that the right word?) came when I drove my wife’s Corolla. The embarrassment was quickly followed by guilt for my first-world angst.
Americans of my generation, particularly men, were subject to the enculturation that what we drive reflects not only who we are but our value. Undoubtedly, I absorbed an unhealthy dose of that marketed self-identity.
Identity is a funny thing. Identity is complex; self-identity is never created in a bubble. Our families of origin, our culture, our inborn characteristics, recent events, and the choices we make all conspire as we live our lives of becoming.
About how we think of ourselves, identity also includes how we choose to present ourselves to the world. At two, my son already had a sense of public identity as he exclaimed, “I’m a big ol’ talking boy.” His self image was the result of adult comments about his behavior coupled with his own self-assessment. In his statement, his comfort with his own nature was revealed.
Because our family culture valued vigorous communication, my son’s pronouncement carried limited risk. Had we devalued child talk, his public self-identification as a talker might never have occurred. While he might have still assessed himself as a talker privately, it would have carried with it the seeds of self-loathing.
Hence, my grief over my car was about what I perceived it said about me. I chose to think the ubiquitous Corolla did not fit my self-image as a creative, open-minded, unique thinker. This was exacerbated by then-recent experiences in an educational institution that sought — intentionally or not — to quash my creative soul.
My identity was sensitive. My heart desperately yearned for healing.
But the human psyche is a remarkably flexible thing. The divine one who felt my feelings with me, nudged my mind and heart open so that I might learn about myself. At war within myself, I felt guilt at idolizing a car while intentionally divesting myself of possessions. But the loving spirit, the healing one I call God, gently led me to self-love.
In my becoming self-image (for our identity is never complete), I accepted my choice of thing-induced identity. I looked at it. I examined its edges, its surface, and, yes, even its core. In time, I released the guilt.
I confess that I struggle everyday with acquisition-based identity. As I grow into the image of God in which I am created, I continue to work at letting go of harmful identity markers. Instead, I choose and recommit to building self-image based on relationship with all of humanity, creation, and divinity.
It’s not easy, I often backslide, but I continue on my lifelong journey of becoming true to the divine identity — the Imago Dei — that we all share.