The news has been filled in recent days with stories of people identifying with a gender or race other than the one that seemed apparent when they were born. Because of that, I’ve been pondering the issue of identity. How much is chosen for us? How much can we choose for ourselves? Who am I, really?
People define themselves using many criteria. Age, race, and gender are starting points as are marital status and parenthood. We define ourselves by our jobs, our politics, and our faith. For those of us with chronic illnesses, a significant temptation is to let our physical conditions label and define us.
So who am I?
* I am more. I am more than my circumstances. I am more than my diseases. I am more than what the world sees.
Remembering that I’m more than my physical challenges is one of my biggest struggles. My chemical sensitivities, in particular, seemingly invade every corner of my life and affect every decision I make. I can never escape them.
I have long been intrigued by Satan’s reasoning in the book of Job. He asked God for permission to test Job in all sorts of horrible ways, including the death of all ten of his children. The Bible tells us that Job felt great sorrow and grief when confronted with his losses, but that he didn’t accuse God of wrongdoing. So Satan tried again. He proposed to God, “Reach out and take away his health, and he will surely curse you to your face!" (Job 2:5, NLT)
In general, I don’t think it’s helpful to compare suffering. I can’t even imagine the pain Job and his wife must have felt at losing all of their children, and I’m not at all sure that I would have passed Job’s test. I do know the grief, however, of losing my mother when I was a young teenager, and losing my husband last year. They were significant and life-altering losses. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that losing my health was harder than losing my loved ones, but it’s fair to say that it’s a loss with a different flavor. No matter how close the relationship between any two people, there is still a measure of separateness. While living on this earth, however, it is impossible to separate from the physical body. My body feels like me. My illnesses feel like my identity.
It feels that way, but it isn’t the truth. I have beliefs, thoughts, experiences and interests beyond my physical condition and my circumstances. I am more. You are more. Let’s remind ourselves of that.
* I am less. 1 Corinthians 12 describes Christians as parts of a body. Verses 19-21 say “How strange a body would be if it had only one part! Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, 'I don't need you.'"
I am less than I can be when I’m not attached to the rest of the body of Christ. Finding a way to attach is a great challenge for anyone with significant chemical sensitivities. Many of us have learned, however, how essential it is to keep trying and how difficult it is to live a full spiritual life alone. Church, you are also less than you are created to be when you don’t find a way to include everyone who wants to be included. God designed us to complement each other and to work together to represent him on this earth.
* I am complete. After my husband died, I began to think about fractions. Our family suddenly seemed incomplete. We seemed like 3/4ths of a family. I realized that I needed to reframe the issue in my mind and stop thinking of my sons and myself as three of four, but as three of three. I needed to change both the numerator and denominator.
I also realized that not only was I seeing my family as incomplete or somehow not enough, but I was also seeing myself that way. Perhaps I was taking on the values of my culture. In the country and time in which I currently live, my race and education work in my favor, but my age, gender, marital and health status work against me.
Fortunately, God doesn’t see me as the world does. Colossians 2:10 tells me that I am complete through my union with Christ. He wants me to continue to grow and develop (the same chapter talks about letting my roots grow down into him), but as I am, I’m enough to be fully loved and accepted.
The Bible tells me that I’m justified through Christ. I’ve heard the term “justified” defined as “just as if I never sinned.” It’s a helpful definition, but I also find it helpful to think about how, when typing, our computers let us “justify” our margins. When we do that, all the gaps are filled in. Every line reaches the edge. God does that for me. He fills in the gaps.
So who am I? Who are you? What defines us? Who defines us?
They aren’t easy questions for anyone, and maybe they’re harder than usual for people with chronic illness. It’s so easy to let ourselves be defined by our diseases, circumstances, or culture. Instead, I want to let God tell me who I am. What he tells me is that I am his deeply loved child. That’s who I am, and that’s enough.