The world tells us that we have to achieve great things in order to be significant. Our identity is shaped by what we do, and so we strive tirelessly to make a name for ourselves by establishing a career. We study for years, work long hours, fight for the awards and the accolades and the promotions, all in the hope that we will finally feel fulfilled. We constantly compare ourselves to others, shaping our lives around their expectations or being driven by a desperate need for approval. Yet none of these things will ultimately satisfy, because we were made for so much more. All these things only, at most, bring temporary satisfaction. If this is where we find our identity, what happens when we don’t succeed – when we fall short, when we don’t get the marks we need, or get overlooked for progression. What happens when, due to discrimination or sickness or other circumstances beyond our control, we lose the career we’ve been striving for? What are the implications of the world’s model of identity for someone who has a profound intellectual disability, like my sister who has Down Syndrome?
From a young age, I bought into the world’s model of finding identity; my worth and value were measured by my achievements. I worked hard at school to be top of my grade, practiced hours each day to excel in the musical instruments I played, and trained hours each week to succeed in sport. I had my life mapped out – I would conquer high-school and music grades, get into an elite music school and go on to play in the world’s best orchestras. I had a dream, and I had a plan to fulfill it. Every hour of my day was consumed by this pursuit, so I should have been happy, right? Well, I wasn’t – I was being bullied at school, so as much as I loved everything I was doing, I was pretty miserable. I was never good enough, even when I was at the top. No matter how hard I strived, there was always someone who was better, or someone who would tear me down (in classic Australian tall-poppy style) for being too good. By the world’s standard, I had it all, but I felt so very empty.
Then one day, at the beginning of the week of my year 8 mid-term exams that I’d studied (too) hard for, everything fell apart. I couldn’t get out of bed for 6 months. I couldn’t go to school. For a while, I was still able to play my beloved instruments, but eventually sickness left me unable to breathe properly and hold up my body to play. (You can read a more detailed explanation of my now 10 year battle with Chronic Fatigue here). Overnight, everything I had worked for, the foundations that I built my identity and my life upon, had slipped out of my grasp. My dream of pursuing an international career in music was shattered. At times, I couldn’t even read. I slipped into depression, lived out my days in a state of overwhelming fatigue and pain, riddled with anxiety and confusion about what was happening to my body. Sickness stole much of my adolescent life away, and I discovered just how fragile building your life around the world’s model of identity is.
Through years of chronic sickness, I’ve wrestled with this concept of identity. If my body and my mind significantly limit me from achieving my ‘potential’, what is left for me to build my life upon? If depressive thoughts rob me of joy, if anxiety keeps me from performing well, if fatigue and pain decrease my daily capacity – what am I left with? If sickness, or death, were to limit my life even further, or take it away entirely, what hope do I have left? For me, as for my sister who has Downs, the answer to these questions is found in one man, who gave up his own life in our place 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ died for us, because there is nothing we could ever do to save ourselves (Rom 3:23); without him, we are broken sinners striving to find unattainable purpose in a world broken by sin. But in him, we have been saved – not because of who we are or what we do, but wholly because of who Christ is and what He has done (Eph 2:8-10; 2 Cor 5:21). He chose us before the creation of the world, to be called children of God, to be forgiven of all our sin, to be given the promise of an eternity with him where the disability and pain we experience now will no longer be a reality (Eph 1:3-12; Rev 21:1-4).
I still struggle to not find my identity according to the world’s ways of thinking. At university especially, its hard not to buy into the competitive drive for academic success. I fall into old patterns of thinking, comparing myself to others, allowing marks to be a measure of my value. I have to fight daily against yearning for the approval of my peers and against my own self-doubt. Its in these moments I find it so helpful to look at my beautiful sister Karlie, who, despite all the difficulties she has faced in her life, by God’s grace is living a life of purpose. How can I measure my own value by such fragile, temporal things, when I see her and know her value, her identity, is one chosen and loved by God? She is a daily reminder to me that the world’s model of identity is SO very broken. To the world, she is disabled, but to God, she is made in His image, so beloved she was worth dying for! Christ offers us a secure and significant, unshakeable foundation on which to build our identity in a way the world never can.
What will you build your identity on?
If this has challenged you and you want to think through issues of identity/work more, I can’t more highly recommend this talk given by Carl Matthei at a conference I attended last week.