16 July 2012

obstructed identity [part I]

{image credit: dry3210}
Turtle had time for one more question.

"Angela, what did you sign on the receipt this time after 'position'?"


-from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin


I've been reading The Westing Game to Rachel and Mark (it made a great rainy-afternoon occupation in Maine, then passed some time on the long drive back too). This is my second time through the book. While I still enjoy its clever structure and sheer silliness, I am also noticing some of the more serious themes woven into Raskin's murderous hijinks. One such theme locks straight into a current preoccupation of mine: identity.

At the book's opening, each character must sign a receipt asking for their names and positions; they write things like "judge, Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court" and "secretary to the president." By the end, when they are asked to sign again, all those positions have changed. Each character has learnt something about him- or herself and so chooses a new self-descriptor.

Sometimes the positions grow more humble: Grace Wexler poses as an "heiress" the first time round, but realizes the value of hard work and concludes that she is a "restauranteur." Sometimes they become more honest: Grace's husband Jake finally admits to being a "bookie." Two positions, those of Angela Wexler and Chris Theodorakis, are particularly touching. These characters have gained confidence and dignity over the course of the story. Where once Angela penciled in "none," she now writes "person," and where once Chris was labeled a mere "birdwatcher," he can now call himself an "ornithologist."

So, identity. A potent question. Who am I? Who are you?

It seems to me that we can make many mistakes in labeling ourselves, but here are two of the big ones illustrated in The Westing Game.

1) We strive to create an identity in the glitz of this world, which is ultimately worthless, instead of humbly accepting the life given to us by God.


2) We refuse to embrace our glorious inheritance in Christ and shy away from the good works He has prepared for us, contenting ourselves with weak ambitions.

I guess the first error results from too high an opinion of ourselves, and of this mortal world in general. The second results from (hold on to your tulips) too low an opinion of ourselves; I honestly believe that much apparent humility has roots in doubt rather than truth. But put your Calvinist protests away till next week, because this week I'm tackling the first.


We so often strive to create an identity in the glitz of this world, which is ultimately worthless, instead of humbly accepting the life given to us by God.

{image credit: National Geographic}
In Raskin's mystery Grace Wexler, Josie-Jo Ford, and Denton Deere take refuge in identities that are designed to impress society, but prove to be false or unsatisfying. Grace thinks she ought to be a belle, and proceeds to dress, talk, and act as if this were true; she believes that if other people perceive her as a genteel heiress, she will be happy. Wealth and popularity are her idols. Judge Ford, who had an underprivileged childhood, received a private scholarship for her education--but she is a fiercely independent woman who feels guilty about taking someone else's money. To deal with her insecurity, she has built a stern reputation which she can wield against any naysayers. Finally, Deere is a medical intern trying to impress his lukewarm fiancee. Like Grace Wexler, he tries to make sure that everybody around him knows how wonderful he is, and like Judge Ford, he signs his name by piling on as many titles and jargon terms as possible: "D. Denton Deere, intern, St. Joseph's Hospital, Department of Plastic Surgery."

These three characters build artificial identities by consulting what their world values, then trying to achieve those ideals. Money? Check. Strength? Check. Intelligence? Check.

But they're all lying. Yes, Launcelot, the truth will out--Grace doesn't have any money, Judge Ford is a fragile soul, and D. Denton Deere is only a mediocre student. The energy spent on creating and then sustaining their impressive reputations? Wasted.

Outside of The Westing Game, we too commit this error. We build a false identity to sustain our peace of mind, brick by foolish brick, using the world's values as our blueprint. I'm important because I can run a marathon! Because I've risen to the top of the corporate ladder! Because I keep my house perfectly clean, sew my ten children's clothing by hand, and run an artisanal potholder business on the side!

Then life's pressures mount. Our identity trembles. Unthinkable that it should fall--so we scramble to prop it up. "The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply" (Psalm 16:4). More training, longer hours at the office. Exchanging rest and joy for stressful insecurity.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. (1 John 2:15-16)
Such an edifice cannot stand. We think it raises us up to heaven, but it will tumble and take us with it.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water.
(Jeremiah 2:12-13)

Another thought. I mentioned the world's "worthless glitz" above, but the sad part is, a lot of the blocks we build into our private edifice are actually good things. That means we take God's wonderful gifts and turn them into trash.

Here, I'll tell you just two of my favorite building blocks: being intellectual and being crunchy. Obviously, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with either, but how I love to use them as my security! That's where the situation gets twisted. Who am I? Oh, let me tell you. I'm a granola-munching smartypants, so don't you mess with me. I know things. I am superior. I am confident. I am somebody. Hear me roar.

All this because I make kefir and like W.B.Yeats . . . and of course, if I somehow besmirch this carefully curated identity by eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or making an ignorant remark, woe! It may take days to rebuild.

How do we stop this madness? How do we stop crafting these lofty positions that ultimately betray us? I guess it looks different for everybody, but the way I see it, the remedy is primarily faith in God's promises.

The only reason to abandon our pretentious identities is if God had something greater to offer us--an unshakeable source of confidence, of joy, even of "self-worth."

Unsurprisingly, He does.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1:3-10)
There's our confidence. There's our delight. It would be so sad to spend years devoted to an empty edifice, only to discover at the end that you've missed out the real glory: life with Christ, and the enjoyment of His love for all eternity.
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Ephesians 3:2-4)
What's granola to that? :)

p.s. I like comments! Tell me what you think.


  1. I suppose I should comment more often, then, since I love reading all your thoughts so kindly and eloquently expressed. (Your recipes have greatly enriched my kitchen, too - I *love* the chocolate banana muffins!) Thanks especially for this post, which is a topic much on my mind these days. I find the hardest part of using the Bible's truth to answer the question of "identity" is that it speaks generally: it says what is true of all Christians. I am so very glad that includes me, but I find myself at times wondering what I, specifically, should do or be or think about me as a particular child of God. Will need more pondering, I guess. And I will look forward to Part II!

  2. I love The Westing Game! Such a good book. And I like your analysis. I don't think I caught on that as a kid, but it makes so much sense. :)

  3. Good post! I have much to think about and mull over now.