Who am I when God's no longer watching?

November 11th, 2018

As I write this, avoiding writing the other things I’m supposed to be writing, I’m eating salt and drinking sugar at McDonald’s to cheer myself up, because I’m ambitious and I want the world, but I don’t have it yet, and I don’t know when I’ll have it, and it’s so hard to keep my candle lit in the meantime. My writing isn’t as good yet as I hope it will be, and I’m being hard on myself today, I suppose. Part of the problem is that I feel like I’m not sure what my voice is, or my style, so nothing I write feels like “me.” I can’t figure out what I like, what I’m good at, or even, more fundamentally, who I am.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week, actually: Who am I? How can I find out? Age-old questions that will never lose their sense of urgency.

When I was an evangelical, the answer to this question was easy: I am God’s beloved. But I asked the question so frequently I had to get that word, beloved, tattooed on my arm so I could finally stop forgetting. Now the notion of my identity as only and wholly God’s beloved feels sentimental — too easy, to the point of being a lie. The tattoo which used to bring me so much comfort in moments of insecurity and low self-esteem now feels pat, saccharine, cloyingly pious. I need a fuller answer that accounts for the dark confusion I feel within myself. Who am I when God’s no longer watching?

Nevertheless, I suspect some form of spiritual experience is required to answer any question about one’s own identity. It’s been years, now, since I abandoned my daily habit of reading the Bible, meditating on it, and praying. No matter how I felt about God and the Bible, those times of contemplation were always useful anyway. The mere act of sitting down and focusing my thoughts for fifteen to thirty minutes felt centering and calming in a phase of my life where college and social life had me wrapped up with anxiety. I could use some of that again now.

But the Bible and Christian prayer both feel fraught to me now, ever since the Trump phenomenon opened my eyes to the problematicness of American Christianity. Now, when I look at the Bible, I sometimes see beauty and mystery, but most days all I see is a weapon for the oppressor to wield against the oppressed. If this text contains something within it that can make the likes of Jeff Sessions feel justified, then how could I feel comfortable folding my hands and kneeling beside them, spiritually speaking, every time I open it? To speak in extremes, how could I ever share my table with them?

I have a feeling I’m asking overly simple questions here, and coming to overly simple conclusions. I’ll probably discard all these thoughts when I’m older, wiser, and less angry. But in the meantime, I’m grappling with identity, again.

I feel like I’m always grappling with identity. At various times in my life, culture, disability, and religion have all taken turns as the primary tool I used to carve myself an identity. My first inclination is to say that perhaps I’ll finally feel settled, once and for all, in my knowledge of who I am when I can find some way to attain it that leans on none of these classifiers; that self-confidence requires a sense of identity which is purely autonomous from base, tribalizing instincts. But that view of things feels unrealistic. Pragmatism requires me to admit that no one is capable of making themselves autonomous of tribalizing instincts — because they are instincts. As long as we’re alive — that is, as long as we have bodies — we won’t be able to abolish our natures. We can strive to overcome our natures, but we’ll succeed insofar as we remain aware of the limits of our success.

In other words, my race, gender, disability, and religious background will always be important in my thoughts about who I am. The difficulty is when my sociopolitical context makes certain of those classifiers repulsive, and the rest a source of anxiety.

How am I to understand my identity as a woman when decisions affecting my life’s possibilities are being made by people — who share my religious background, by the way — who believe a woman’s life is less valuable than the mere act of childbirth? How am I to understand my identity as a hard-of-hearing person when, with a single act of Congress, the genetic makeup which causes my disability could disqualify my future children from health insurance? Is what I am, then, a danger to my progeny? A flaw in the gene pool? A defected baby-incubator?

These intersecting feelings of affiliation, repulsion, and anxiety, though externally or politically derived, make personal experience relentlessly ungraspable. I wonder if I am doomed to always be grappling with my identity, wrestling it like Jacob wrestled God: I won’t let you go until you bless me.

I imagine many people who still identify as evangelical, and many Christians of other traditions as well, share my experience of mixed feelings about their affiliations, especially now in the Trump era. While new to me, the difficulty of understanding my personal identity against the sociopolitical context is likely old news to people of other identities and other generations. Perhaps the oft-satirized phenomenon of “liberal guilt” is actually a clumsy attempt to cope with identity in context.

I’m no closer now, having written this, to knowing who I am, or how to reconcile my demographic markers to the era I’m living in. But I do feel less alone in the wondering. It’s an odd kind of comfort to be reminded that what you’re experiencing isn’t at all unique, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.

© 2021, Cameron Baumgartner.
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