Our daughter-in-law was changing her 2-year-old. The little one looked up at her mother and said, “Mommy, you’re pretty.”
Mommy gently kissed her and replied, “Caroline, you are pretty, too.”
Caroline recoiled at her mother’s words. “No, I’m not,” she declared. “I am a big girl.”
Caroline already had a sense of identity. What was important to her was that she be seen as a big girl capable of doing some things independently and, definitely, of having her own opinions.
It’s encouraging for a parent to see this confidence and self-assuredness in a small child. Parents also know that this will erode over time.
Rejection by friends, challenges in the classroom, and limitations in sports will painfully shake the pillars of a child’s identity.
Adolescence brings its own exciting mess of self-understanding. As a child makes the arduous trek to adulthood, she is bombarded by questions of relationships, careers, independence and some vague need for an anchor of meaning.
You might be tempted to think that by the time one starts a family, embarks upon a profession or puts down roots, one would recapture the certainty of a 2-year-old’s identity.
But that is seldom the case. Off in the shadows, there are questions of self-worth, the unsettling suspicion that one’s roles in life may have become one’s identity.
I have found no relief from this with age. I had hoped that I would have gained some of Caroline’s rock-hard conviction of who I am and what I should be about.
Instead, I find myself as a stranger to myself, now that former roles have disappeared.
Perhaps, though, the ultimate failure in the search for identity is not a lack of identity, but a lack of an abiding search.
Jesus didn’t come into the world with a rehearsed script. He struggled with His own identity, from those first temptations in the desert to the last pleading in the garden.
At Cana, His “time had not yet come” but He did His mother’s bidding. Sparring with the Syro-Phoenician woman over the “crumbs of the table,” He discovered His mission beyond His own kind. He grew into His life.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus seeks some quiet place to pray. In these moments, He no doubt struggled with His identity, finding it in God, not in a single for-all-times revelation, but a daily unveiling of the way — of His way.
I pray that Caroline, when she is a “big girl,” finds this as well.