If there is a general malaise in our society, against which we rail, it is a profound anxious sense of lack, not simply in relation to what we possess and consume (including FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out) but, crucially, in relation to our sense of self (that is, living with shame). Indeed, the perpetuation of the free market depends on stimulating such a sense. Among my peers, who are at a mid-point deconstructing-and-reconstructing stage of life, the presenting issue is arguably bagging marathons, ultras, and venturing into triathlons. For my children’s peers, who are deconstructing childhood and constructing an adult life, it relates to sexuality. I’m not suggesting here that running and sexuality are of comparable weight, but noting the impact of an artificially stimulated sense of lack on both.
Sexuality has become the primary identity issue for the subculture in which my sons find themselves living (it may be different for my daughter, who has left home). The first-asked and most-repeated question is, ‘Are you gay, straight, or bi?’ Yet at the same time, we have never before lived in times of such anxiety and confusion regarding sexuality; such pressure to make surprisingly uninformed choices so as to not be lacking, not to be ashamed. This is the irony: the more desperate our search for completeness, the more disconnected we become.
Identity, including sexuality, is constructed. According to one story, God formed human beings from localised soil and free-roaming wind. Made (constructed) us, moreover, as persons, socially constructed and constructing. Together, and intended to be in partnership with God, we construct identity, from givens and choices, from grounded starting points, from decisions and consequences, from vocations and challenges, affirmation and undermining, welcome and unwelcome opportunity, by way of missteps and rescues, endings and new beginnings, employing love and hate, leaving home and returning home again, through story-telling and pragmatism. Elsewhere we read that we remain malleable clay, worked and reworked.
The first great task of life is to construct our identity. But this takes time: slow down; take a broad view (drawing on a tradition of story-telling that is deep and long and broad will help). Undoubtedly, our sexuality both propels us out from home into the world in the first place, and navigates us toward others, to not be alone in the world (not simply in terms of one or more sexual partners, but to a tribe, with its own culture and cultural rules). And so, it is understandable that it is of greater importance to those who are in the process of leaving home. But it is hardly adequate to be the primary issue, even at this stage in life (and not least because it becomes less important). Indeed, shackled to the free market—to constantly shifting choice, terms and conditions, built-in obsolescence—sexuality stymies us in the very task of construction.
It is no coincidence that Jesus was raised by and apprenticed to a builder; nor that he spoke of himself as a builder of a communal identity, under the direction of his heavenly Father, the architect. No coincidence that he gave Simon (whose name means ‘listen!’) the additional name Peter (which means rock) and made him the foundation of a new community which Peter would describe as a temple of living stones being constructed by, and held together by, Jesus. For those who have ears to hear, construction work is not driven. Cathedrals are built over centuries.
How, then, might we construct identity well, whether for the first or a subsequent time? Here are some initial thoughts.
Take time to lament the loss of your childhood—or your thirties, or your children leaving home, or whatever the loss happens to be. The deconstruction of every season, to make space for the emergence of the next, can feel like destruction. Don’t rush to rebuild. Find others with whom it is safe to say, I miss what was good back then, with whom you can sit in the uncertainty of the present, and with whom you can hope for the future.
Root yourself in a community that has a deep and long and broad story to draw on.
Resist being too-narrowly defined. Explore different areas—work hard, play hard—as gifts from God; but don’t expect to find what you are looking for in any of them. Let that be enough. Pursue contentment.
Be a good friend to as wide a group of people as you can, regardless of how they identify, or label you. Be quick to listen, for understanding; and slow to speak, but willing to speak up against folly masquerading as wisdom.
Seek out the counsel of those who are older than you, including earlier generations, who can help you to discern between the sense of eternity within each of us—the awareness of every possible potential moment within every given present moment—and the imposter sense of lack in every present moment. Train yourself to say no to the insatiable appetite of the imposter voice.
Forgive others, often, as often as it takes to lay down whatever they have burdened you with. And forgive yourself.
The work of building a life—a liveable, life-giving existence—takes a lifetime. You are a holy work of progress.