When I was in college anomie was a big word. In Sociology 101 we talked about the reduction of people to numbers, the depersonalization of the arena-sized classroom, the sense that you were nothing but a cog in a gigantic wheel going nowhere. That was the Seventies, and we were reeling from Watergate, gas shortages, the Vietnam war, and the advent of disco (particularly the latter).
Honestly, as a freshman, I was not thinking such lofty thoughts. As I sat in the back of the biology classroom with one million other students, a mere speck in the eye of the academy, squinting to make out the professor down front, I was thinking about my girlfriend who broke up with me. Or my next move, as in girl move. In retrospect, I was preoccupied with my own concerns but not thinking much about my image, my tribe, my brand. I didn’t have an IPhone (the Dark Ages, people), watch particular TV shows, or identify myself by what car I drove, food I ate (Vegan, locally-sourced, gluten-free), or brand clothes I wore. I may have been self-centered (no, I was self-centered), but I do not recall making decisions based solely on how I would be perceived but by what I wanted. I wanted to figure out who I was, but I wasn't consciously trying to build an image. I was just. . . me. . . whoever "me" was. The court of public opinion of me was really, really small.
The world has changed. In the latest volume of The Mockingbird, in an article entitled “Searching Low and High for the Who Behind the Who,” David Zahl notes that it “used to be that only museums and boutiques were curated. Today, people are curated, lives are curated.” Even as I say this, I’m tempted to think of how you perceive me. Intelligent? A little hip? (I wish.) Bookish? Thoughtful? I try not to think about such things, and yet they creep in. Honestly, can you blame me? We’re swimming in a tidal wave of identity-preoccupation. It’s not so much the question of who I am but who I want you to perceive me to be. And that’s a particular kind of self-absorption that we need a way out of.
I only know one way. And Zahl nails it. He says the moment of grace comes when we stop asking "Who am I?" and start asking "Who are you?" That Godward focus leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness, the kind where, as Tim Keller says, we not only do not care what others think, we do not even care what we think of ourselves. As Keller says in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, "True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself." Because all that matters is what Jesus thinks of me, and He declares me holy (because of Him) and beloved. No condemnation. Case closed. Love alone that will not let me go.
There's no direct path to humility, to a God-shaped identity, because when you get there, you won't be thinking about getting there, because I suspect you will have already forgotten yourself. But for most of us, issues of identity rear their head every day, and we have to confront them by doing what Keller says: we have to re-live the Gospel every day, every moment. And if you catch yourself obsessing over perceptions, laugh at the foolish project you have embarked on and live in the love of Jesus. Stop staring in the reflecting pool of self, and meditate on the Source out of Whom our identity flows.
Once I was carrying one of my favorite singer-songwriters to his hotel after a gig. I blathered on about one of his songs and how much it had spoken to me. I expected him to be grateful, to respond warmly. He said nothing. I was looking for appreciation. But now I know. He had forgotten himself, and he did not want to be reminded, did not want to begin to think he was a gift to the world, that he was who I thought he was. He was performing for an audience of One, and it wasn't me.
I want to be like that.