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Dissolved by Christ: How to discover who you really are
The way out of our identity crisis
The authentic self says, ‘This is me; you must accept me as I am.’ The vulnerable self says, ‘This is me; take me and transform me.’
Our world is possessed by a poly/meta/perma crisis, manifest in politics, leadership, economics, technology, and education. Intrinsic and innate to this is our crisis of identity, where something has enthralled, taken possession and immured us within the chaos around us.
Our modern world is one in which everyone “is radically dedicated to the way of his or her own choosing”. Such ‘choosing’ is intrinsic to modern values of freedom and notions of self. Freedom to choose what I want, when, and how I want without imposing anything on me. There are no musts and no givens to my identity and life.
My only responsibility as a modern person is to be true to myself and create myself in the image I choose for myself. Identity has collapsed into solipsism, where my internal psychological being is all that exists. My identity is self-generating, atomised and anomic, not dependent upon anyone or anything other than what I choose to pick and mix into my life.
Yet this self-creating, this autopoiesis of identity, has not brought us more freedom but less. We have less meaning, purpose, and a stable sense of self. The symptoms of identity crisis are seen in the decline of our mental health. We are more anxious, more depressed, and more self-harming than ever.
COVID did not lead to a great reset or great reconsideration. Rather it has led to a doubling down on our pursuit of being self-made. Looking internally for meaning and freedom as if more of what caused the problem will be our way out. Like a Chinese finger trap, the more we try to be free, the less we are.
Hitting the Buffers
Sealed off from enchantment, the modern buffered self is also sealed off from significance, left to ruminate in a stew of its own ennui.
So how did we get here, in this prison of our own making? Knowing why we are here will help us find a means of escape. We are very different from our ancestors, having changed into very different beings in the last few hundred years.
One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.
Once open to the world, others, and God, we have pulled up the drawbridge to ourselves in acts of self-protection. What gets into my life is now what I choose to let in. Meaning and identity were something we once received from outside us. Now, we pick and mix our identity and bricolage from whatever we find to hand.
This is what Charles Taylor calls the ‘the buffered self’. Where we used to be ‘porous’ to the world, God and others, we have now closed ourselves off from the world in self-protection and self-creation; only what is immanent is real. My success, happiness, and the relationships of my choice are the ultimate meaning of the buffered self.
Yet there is a Ghost in the Machine of our being and identity. We long for the transcendence we have cut ourselves off from. There is a ‘muscle memory of our own souls, even if we are often unconscious to its effect’ that responds to the experience of things beyond us.
A sublime sunset, holding the tiny hands of a newborn baby, a person speaking love and life over us, watching a loved one die, can activate an experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery before which humanity both trembles and is fascinated, is both repelled and attracted). These are moments when we intuit that there is more to life than the physical, and how I feel about life. There are dimensions to ourselves beyond ourselves that to access requires letting down the drawbridge we have raised to the world, others and the numinous, i.e. God.
Yet to do this requires being vulnerable. Not the kind of toxic vulnerability that merely expresses our psychological angst at life but a real vulnerability of becoming porous. But that means ceding our aegis, our self-protection, which we are disabled from doing, by a lifetime of habits and practices that have incarcerated us.
So instead, we apply our habits of picking and mixing (bricolage) to consume the other, acting as tourists, visiting, and tasting but never at risk of entering into something beyond ourselves. Even Christianity is reduced to more raw materials for the life I am creating. My encounters with God are not to realise that he is God and I am not or that he has any claim upon me, but instead, are in order to feel good about myself and the life I am making. To possess Christ as a talisman for protection and a divine worker deployed around my ends and desires.
Identity disturbance: I want to become like someone else
It is as if our modern world suffers from an identity disturbance of incoherence and instability like a shared global mental health disorder.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes identity disturbance as a "markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self" and is one of the key symptoms of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Those with BPD suffer a profound lack of sense of self, struggling with the feeling that they have no idea who they are or what they believe in.
I have my own long history of mental illness, arising from childhood abuse, suffering from depression and anxiety. When I was thirty, I suffered anxiety so intense it led to symptoms of depersonalisation and derealisation - looking in a mirror, I would feel like I was looking at someone else or when holding up my hand, I felt I was looking at someone else’s. Viewing the world around me, everything seemed two-dimensional, flat and unreal.
Once when going through a particularly hard time, with the suicides of both my parents, I sought out a new therapist. At our first meeting, they asked why I had indicated that having a Christian therapist was important to me. I explained it was not like having a Christian car mechanic. Nor was it for some simple notions of someone who would understand me sharing about my Christian faith. It was for something even deeper and more fundamental.
I wanted a therapist who would understand that I was trying to become like someone else.
I have benefitted from various therapies to unpick and unpack what happened to me and how and why my body and mind have responded in self-defence as they have. But I did not want to establish myself solely as a well-bounded individual (although I needed that too) but rather wanted to lose myself in Christ. Despite the need for therapy, I know how our secular versions of mental health are predicated on ‘buffered’ understandings of human identity and well-being.
Rescue: The Dissolved Self
We need rescuing from ourselves to find out who we are and become who we were meant to be. We need someone who can punch a hole in the buffered modern self and reach our human soul, the place and part of us that yearns for the transcendent.
Christ stands at the door to our lives, knocking on the drawbridge.
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelation 3:20 NIV
This Jesus has entered fully into our world, divesting Himself of his divinity, self-emptying, yet fully open to the world, others and God. Not protected or buffered but porous. Christ wants to be in a relationship with us over a meal, where the food we eat and drink is a metaphor and reality for what we ingest to create the life we make. Ultimately Christ offers Himself as the food and drink of life. And if we eat with Him, and of Him, we are then consumed by Him.
Christ’s body, itself dissolved, is now a dissolving agent.1
We are taken up into Him, He the vine and us the branches. Where we avoid suffering with a buffered life, Christ enters into all our suffering, porous and open, his participation leading to his crucifixion and death. We are invited to follow Him and participate in His salvific ‘at-onement’ with God, others and the world. And this is not just mystical or a small psychological sample of what might follow in eternity:
The foretaste is not like an appetizer, a smaller and entirely different food from the main course (even if selected precisely for its compatibility), but rather a literal tasting in advance of that eschatological banquet in which all limited and fumbling uses of the body, community, and time…2
Colloquay: Now, what do you make of that?
At the heart of the Spiritual Exercises is space and time and deliberate intention to listen out for the Christ who is knocking at the door to our lives. To discover that it is safe to let Him in. To talk with Him, to practice and learn how colloquy, i.e. have intimate, open and vulnerable conversations. To express our deepest and truest desires, fears and pains. To search our complicated interiors and have the Spirit of God make us porous and undefended before God. To let Christ rouse our heart's truer, deeper desires and discover that our very existence is not something we protect and self-create but is something to receive, i.e. is given to us by a God who created us in love. And as we experience God’s love, we find true freedom and identity, where God ‘blesses us with a new vision’ of ourselves, one that comes from Him, our creator.3
The Spiritual Exercises walk us through the gospels, facilitating an extended contemplation of Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection. Christ's inner life and identity are revealed as the Spirit leads us to experience Christ’s heart and passions.
The Christ that Ignatius encountered is the Christ who waits to meet with us. The exercises are not about learning facts about Christ but about encountering Him in person. In the exercises, the Spiritual Directors who guide us bring us to the cross and the Christ they have also met, where they stand with us before Christ and ask, ‘Now what do you make of that?’ and then withdraw as they leave alone with Him.
Jonathan Martin Ciraulo, The Eucharistic Form of God: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Sacramental Theology, 99.