Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Identity Lost (& Found)

Identity theft is on the rise. The FTC reports that 10 million Americans fall victim to identity theft each year resulting in over $50 billion in lost revenue to businesses. A stolen identity can rob you not only of economic resources but also of emotional security and future financial opportunity. Not surprisingly a whole industry has emerged to provide an array of safeguards designed to enhance identity protection.

Linda and I had a recent encounter with a salesman that reminded me of the enormous power that personal identity wields in our lives. Not at all predisposed to purchase what this young man was selling, we concentrated our efforts on getting to know him and sharing a bit of our story. He was very engaging and did not shy away from this disarming discourse in personal matters. We learned that he is one of three sons of a local pastor and, although he is the only one in his family who did not pursue a college education, he has been very successful in his chosen career with obvious gifts, persuasive common sense and a compelling personality. In fact, once we opened this door he was more than eager to tell us every detail of what made him outstanding and unique.

Long story, short, we were introduced to his fully researched heritage as a descendant of the Moors of North Africa, inspiring him to abandon his father's faith and embrace the Muslim religion. We listened with genuine interest as our enthusiastic guide introduced us to the critical role that the (majority) non-white population played in our nation's formative years. We were exhorted to recognize Benjamin Banneker, a free black man, mathematician and astronomer, as a true founding father whose influence preceded that of George Washington. We were tutored in the role that the Masons played in designing our government, rooted in Moorish cosmology and culture. We even learned of the blessings that accompany those who are genetically endowed with a generous measure of melanin.*

Clearly our new acquaintance derived an enormous sense of self-worth and personal significance from his carefully fashioned and thoroughly articulated identity. Attesting to the tremendous power it held in his life was not only the fervor with which he shared its details (emotionally charged with hubris and a hint of anger), but also the sacrifice it must have cost him in his relationship with his father and siblings. It provided for him a basis for personal pride, a perceived context for his life, and a sense of destiny.

We all cling to that which makes us unique as individuals... to those characteristics of our past, our personality, passions, pursuits, or progeny that form our identity. The search for significance is universal and it is intimately wrapped up in our need to embrace a particular identity. When that identity is threatened, or its underpinnings found to be inadequate to sustain our self-esteem, we face a major personal crisis... a crisis more devastating than a stolen credit card.

When a rampaging cancer robbed me of all strength one year ago, a major underpinning of my identity was kicked out from under me. No longer able to make it through a full schedule of patients, I was forced to close an innovative new practice that I had begun less than 3 years earlier. The daily satisfaction derived from my identity as personal physician to so many individuals evaporated overnight. I was forced to examine the bedrock foundation of my true identity.

Of course my identity as husband, father, grandfather, brother, etc., had not changed and in these relationships I found (and continue to find) great reward and in each a renewed source of strength and fulfillment. Yet as satisfying as these relationships are, they too are inadequate, for they ultimately depend on the fidelity (and presence) of others to provide a sustained sense of personal purpose and selfhood. I could look to other characteristics to embellish my identity, such as clever blogger, handyman, great lover... (the list goes on :-) But experience has taught that all of these self-ascribed characteristics are ephemeral and not an enduring basis for one's true identity.

My experience with cancer has taught me not to rely on any of them. There is only one reliable and invulnerable foundation for my identity. It is unaltered by my circumstance. It cares not about my past or where my family is from or what I have achieved. It is more powerful even than my DNA. It is found in this verse of scripture: "See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are." (1John 3:1) I do not need to look elsewhere for my ultimate purpose, for self-esteem or fulfillment. There is but one right that I know is guaranteed and cannot be stolen from me by any man: "But as many as received Him [Jesus], to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name." (John 1:12)

In this identity, as a child of God, I find my place in the universe, impervious to pain and adversity, confident in who I am and whose I am. What freedom! Free to be me and compelled to share His great love with others. I now pray for my salesman friend that he too will come to reclaim his true identity.

Dr Dan

*We all enjoyed a round of laughter as this white boy with malignant melanoma pointed out that I probably carry more melanin in my body than he ever will!