I grew up in a family environment where family history verged on ancestry worship.
Connection to the past mattered. I have a folder in my photo file of the grave stones of family members, from both parent's sides of the family.
I regularly recognize in my interactions with people how my family has defined me. My mother's parents (below) had more to do with this than anyone in my family.
What my extended family gave me as a child, and continues to provide me as an adult, is a ground upon which to stand that defines a part of who I am. Increasingly, I am aware that this is a fading reality in our society.
It is not that family doesn't matter. It just matters in a different way. Family has become, like any social relationship, a vehicle for self-expression and social positioning. This is a result of the fragmentation of social and organizational life.
In the pre-modern past, one's identity was less individual and more social, defined by family affiliation and community proximity. Where you lived and what your family did defined you.
Today, we are all individualists, with a choice as to how we are defined.
Recently, this question came to mind as I talked with a friend about her past, and how it was filled with traumatic experiences from early childhood into middle age. I was amazed by her ability to stand apart from the abuse of her past and see it objectively. While that did not cancel out the deep emotional trauma she felt, her pain did not define her. She was not her pain, nor the abuse she received. She was something else, something more. For her family is central in defining who she is and is largely responsible for the healing she has experienced.
As I thought about her experience and her response to it, and reflected back upon my own family experience, a number of questions began to come to mind. Here are some of them.
To what extent are we defined by ...
What we do?
Where we work?
Where we were born?
Where we went to school?
To what degree do ...
Our network of relationships, and,
Our daily work and recreation schedule
... define us?
Is our personal identity a manufactured public perception like a product brand? Or, are we the person others think us to be?
I don't think there is an easy answer to any of these questions. There are answers, however they are complex, not simple.
The Question of Potential
Each question above I've thought about often, and in various ways, for almost 40 years. I used to think that our identities are unitary, singular, only one thing, that we are born with an identity.
I, now, see us human beings as much more complex. The range and possibilities for our sense of who we are is greater that we can imagine. One way to understand our identity is to understand what our potential means.
Potential is that unexplored, undeveloped part of us, born from the talent, gifts and experience that expands our awareness and reach in life. It is all future and very little past. It is the difference that we make that has yet to be realized.
Potential is not something fixed and set at birth. It isn't a commodity. It is unbounded openness. It is not only unknown, but undefinable before its realization.
Potential is not additive but exponential. It isn't a container of what we haven't achieved. It is a platform from which our whole life & work is built. The more we build upon, the greater our potential grows. Our potential creates opportunities for new possibilities in our life and work.
The only limitation on our potential is time. We must apply ourselves to reaching our potential everyday. I'm not advocating for becoming a workoholic. Rather, I am suggesting we develop an opportunistic attitude about each day. We look for opportunities to make a difference, to have an impact, and to affect change within the contexts where we live and work.
If we build toward reaching our potential each day, then over the course of our lifetime we reach far beyond our present abilities. If we did not try to grow or think that potential doesn't mean very much, then a growing sense of lost time and opportunity will grow within us. I do not wish that feeling on anyone. Regret and longing are not comforting thoughts when one is old and past one's prime.
My point is that we need to see potential as an ascending line of development throughout the course of our lives. This is the inner truth of our experiences of transition in life and work. Each transition point is one where we are being pulled to change in order to fulfill our potential. In each life or work transition is opportunity, if we only see it that way.
In order to continue to reach for our potential, we must stop doing certain things and begin to learn and master new skills, attitudes, behaviors as we move into new social and organizational contexts. This is the secret to mastering our transitions in life and work. It is the secret to being adaptive and reaching our potential each day.
The Question of Impact
To understand and identify our potential is to understand our potential Impact.
Impact is the change that makes a difference that matters.
Embedded in that statement are the values, talents, relationships, strategies, structures and ways of measurement that are required to live a full, healthy, meaningful life.
Impact isn't just what we accomplish or what we achieve. It is also opens up new potential, fresh opportunities, and environments that may not have existed even yesterday.
Impact never reaches a final point of completion, either. It is a stage along a path of development. Our potential is the same, not a fixed quantity, but something that grows and develops with initiative and action, or, diminishes from inaction.
We are not human machines, but living systems that are constantly evolving. We are always either growing or declining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This growth is not set, fixed or predetermined. It may show itself as a pattern of development, but it is not formulaic. We are open and responsive to the full range of experience that we have. Our potential for impact is far greater than we can imagine.
To envision our impact is to imagine our potential.
To imagine our potential is to understand better who we are as persons within the social and organizational contexts of our life and work.
To define ourselves is to see that we are both the same and always changing. This is human nature at its most basic.
The Shift in Question
It has become clear to me that the way we understand what defines us has to change. Up to now personal identity has been seen as a kind of object, a thing that we possess, and lasts our life time.
I am (fill in the blank).
One of the reasons why we viewed our identities this way is that for most of human history we lived in homogeneous communities formed by generations of families. But over the past couple hundred years, that social context has been eroding as families fragment through relocation to new places for economic, ethnic and political reasons. Identities have become more fluid as social interaction required greater flexibility and adaptation to change in society.
As a result, we must learn to adapt to the relationships as they present themselves. This shows us that our sense of self is far more fluid and maleable than maybe we once thought. In this sense, our core identity ends up having multiple expressions, which may appear to us as different identities.
The question that confronts us most directly, then, is what makes up that core identity that allows us to be the same person in very different social and organizational contexts? Or to state it differently how can I be a person of integrity who knows how to find strength for any situation?
The Question of Identity
This post, like many I've written over the past three years, has taken not minutes to create, but weeks, and in this case months, to write. They have because so much of what I write is done in a quest to discover my own understanding of what I sense or observe in my and other's life and work. This quest to understand defines me as much as anything I know. What I learn feeds the importance that integrity has for me.
What I write therefore is often much more personal than may be evident. But it is also social because I writing in the context of many conversations and experiences that I have with people and organizations.
I find that many people have the same issues or needs as I do.The need is to be clear about who we are, and how that factors into how we live each day.
The Place of Desire
A third thing that I've discovered about personal identity, along with the importance of integrity, and our potential impact, is that we are driven by desires. We often talk about these desires as passions.
I have come to this view through the work of philosopher/ theologian James K.A. Smith. He writes,
"Because I think we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities - what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are - is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate - what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like."
I find this to be true, and yet hard to get at it. It is so much easier to create a list of values or strengths or traits, and say, that is me. But down deep inside of us is a presence that is passionate for the things that matter.
These desires are for Personal Meaning, Happy, Healthy Relationships and To Make a Difference that Matters in our live and work. These desires form the core of our identity. They do because they are ways that we define what we love.
These desires must form the core of our identity because the platform of our identities in the past is eroding. No longer will families live in inter-generational community. No longer will we work for the same company all our lives. No longer will we find homogeneous environments where everyone finds support and affiliation with people who are like them.
The future is open, diverse and filled with constant change. For this reason our identity cannot be based on external circumstances, but rather on who I am within. And who I am is what I love and desire to create in my life.
When our desires drive us to clarifying the values that give us identity, then we know where to find meaning in our life.
When our desires point us toward the kind of people with whom we can have happy, healthy relationships, then we will know how to be the kind of person who can create those relationships.
When our desires define the impact we want to have, then we know what our life's purpose ultimately means.
As I have worked through a number of scenarios that could possibly define who we are, increasingly they became more complex. The more complex they became the more I realized that the picture I saw was a picture of all the choices from which to build our lives. As a result I was pushed back to what I had discovered before.
There is more to say, and I will in future posts. But let me leave this long post with this final thought.
Series Note: This post is the first in a series that I am calling Reclaiming the Real. You can find a page of links to each post in the series here.
To live is to love.
To love is to give.
To give is to live a life where meaning, happiness, health and impact flow from the daily experience of seeking to fulfill the potential that we each have to make a difference that matters.