Photo Creds: Carson Arias

The notion of identity is deeply intrinsic to the human experience, being meta-cultural – crossing over every generation and era. The current zeitgeist we are presently in, the era of post-modernism, is not removed from the innateness of identity, but is rather magnified in this age. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, defines postmodernism in this regard:

“Hypothetically, [postmodernism] is an attitude of skepticism, irony towards rejection of grand narratives, ideologies, and universalism, criticising objective notions of reason, human nature, social progress, absolute truth and objective reality.”

Jordan Peterson [Edited for clarity]

In our modern western society in which absolute truth does not exist, an individual’s identity hence has come to the fore, being latched on with both hands as it were, as evidenced by the rise of identity politics in recent times. The notion of identity thus has not been so paramount in the consideration of recent history, resulting in expressive individualism where we try to find ourselves by looking within.

In traditional cultures, life functions like a play, in which a specific role is allotted at birth. A pertinent example of this is found in India with the caste system, being one of the world’s most ancient forms of social stratification, being 3000 years old. Hindus are divided into 4 main categories – Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (farmers, traders and merchants), and Shudras (labourers). From these main castes, they are further divided into roughly 3000 castes and 25000 subcastes, categorised by a specific occupation. For centuries, the caste system has trapped individuals into fixed social orders, dictating one’s social status, and most importantly one’s identity.

On the other hand, in western culture, life is rather thought of as a blank canvas, in which we possess the agency of which to fill this blank canvas – often referred to by the Latin phrase “Tabula Rasa”. One possesses the agency to wield one’s identity, to mould it to what one prefers.

As the year progressed, I noticed a major shift in identity. At the start of this year, I completed my undergraduate degree in biomedicine majoring in biomedical engineering, in which I commenced doing postgraduate dentistry. I observed a large shift in terms of how I was portrayed by others. Biomedical engineering is known to be a niche field, especially within Australia, where doing undergrad after being met with the question of what I was doing in university, a follow-up question of “what even is biomedical engineering” typically arose because of how niche it is. After being a dental student for a year, after being asked the question of what I do, I consequently am sometimes met with a barrage of dentistry questions, with some coming up to ask regarding their dental issues which as of now, I’m currently not qualified to provide advice on. There is an instant recognition of what a dentist is because more or less everyone has had at least direct contact with a dentist, whereas almost no one has had contact with a biomedical engineer. It is this collection of experiences by the public that creates emotional connections to what a dentist does, and hence in coming to this newfound identity as a dental student, those connotations have been brought upon me.

Identifying with something is a very natural human inclination. In forming an in-group, one also inadvertently forms an outgroup, where an “us vs them” mentality arises. A common phenomenon of this occurring is in sports such as soccer, being heightened with the hype of the 2022 world cup occurring at the moment. In soccer games, fans don’t use the language of a certain team, but rather the language of “us and we”, such as “we had a bad season last year”, even though objectively speaking, fans realistically do not have any physical influence on the team’s performance. An emotional connection is built upon identifying with a group of like-minded individuals, as the proverb goes, “birds of a feather flock together”.

The phenomenon of cliques comes to mind, in which the formation of cliques leads to friendship groups that are not completely open. The closer one becomes within a clique, the more ‘inside’ one becomes, where inside jokes arise being a joke that only the in-group can understand due to the exclusive set of experiences they share. Yet at the same time, the closer a group becomes, the further other people become to this group. In closeness, one inadvertently causes distance, which may breed a culture of exclusivity, being unwelcoming of others who are not a part of this circle.

An important question regarding who we are is “what makes me, me”? Some say that it is the body that makes us who we are. Skin cells have a continual cycle of turning over. Red blood cells have an average circulatory lifespan of around 120 days, where the function of transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide between the lungs and tissues is performed by 2 * 1013 RBCs where 1.7 * 1011 of which are renewed every day. There is a continual apoptotic and replenishing process. If it is not the body, which is temporary and will waste away, is it the consciousness, which is facilitated by the organ of the brain? But this too, is not constant over time, in which our consciousness develops throughout life from being an infant, child, teenager, adult, to old age. To add to this, our consciousness is contingent upon our memories, as well as how well we remember them. If we didn’t have certain memories, especially memories of pivotal moments in our lives that led to true character development or unfortunate backsliding, would our character be the same? Would what we value, our characteristic inclinations, and our temperament stay the same?

The Christian worldview offers a fascinating insight regarding one’s identity. An identity of deliberate design by God is demonstrated in the Genesis creation narrative, where humanity is defined by God as being made in His image, in His likeness.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26-28 ESV

In the Bible, a fascinating term is referred to those of God. The Children of God. Where in being a part of this intimate family, we have the ability to call one another brothers and sisters in Christ. The reason for this lies in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, redeeming humanity from its sinful depravity by making peace through His blood shed on the Cross.

Expressive individualism, by looking into ourselves, simply does not work. The prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament aptly muses:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Jeremiah 17:9 ESV

By looking within ourselves, instead of finding freedom and fulfilment, we are met with confusion, insecurity and isolation. Rather, Christ is the one we should look towards, where the apostle Paul speaks of Jesus in this way:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” Colossians 1:15-23 ESV

When we understand our identity, finding our purpose naturally follows. Much like how when one identifies whether a cooking utensil is a spoon or fork, we would use it for its particular function. If our identity is in Christ, we then understand our purpose in living for God’s glory. To enjoy Him forever.

To end, here are the opening words of the epistle of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:1-14 ESV