I AM: Considering Identity from Yahweh to Sethe to Superman
by Adam Kirtley
Stuart Coordinator of Religious and Spiritual Life
Baccalaureate Address, May 21, 2011
I am an extrovert. I am joyful. I am a slow reader. I am a liberal. I am a proud father. I am listing these in no particular order. I am a husband and a son. I am a Christian. I am a musician. I am an incredibly slow cyclist. I am striving for balance.
I am heavier than I want to be. I am funnier than people think I am.
I am confident, at times to a fault. I am totally annoyed by arrogant people. I am terrified of not measuring up.
I am ashamed of some of the things that I am. Like the fact that I am envious of the amount of money some of my friends make. Or, that I am stubborn as hell. Or, that I am concerned that I long for my children’s success because it reflects well on me. And I am pretty sure that is making some of you squirm.
I am good looking when I look in the mirror, and I am somehow horrified when I see a photograph of myself. I am hoping that you’ll reserve judgment.
I am irrationally frightened of many things related to medicine and health. I am the son of a physician.
I am an Eagle Scout, which of course means that I am trustworthy, loyal, brave and a whole bunch of other crap I don’t remember. Oh, and I am irreverent.
Some of you, I suspect, are planning to take a year off to find yourself. When I was in college, the post-college year spent “finding yourself” was framed as a tangible and accomplishable goal, as if one could run down to Albertsons to pick up some dog food, a gallon of milk, and a large bag of identity. But of course the path of self-discovery, the journey to claim one’s sense of identity, to find the answer to the question “Who am I?” can be a long road, and perhaps one in which the destination is never fully realized. “Who am I?” is fundamentally, I think, a spiritual question. And spirituality has always been, for me anyway, about the journey.
Perhaps one of the most clear and definitive answers to this question comes from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. As you read in Core (some of you with me), Moses pushes God for a statement of identity and “God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh- Asher- Ehyeh, I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the people of Israel, I-AM sent me to you.'"
This enigmatic answer from God, points to the eternal and infinite nature of the divine being. That is, the name I AM is all encompassing. I AM cannot be limited by any sort of qualifier which would follow. God is saying to Moses, I AM in the beginning. I am now. I am forever. I am beyond language, beyond a name - I just AM. Now talk about having a sense of self! I’m drawn to this passage for a couple of reasons. First, I love the mystery and ambiguity of it. In some ways this text is refreshingly modern. A God which is defined simply as “I AM” requires us to contemplate the vastness of God as a philosophical endeavor.
The other thing I enjoy about this passage though is the extent to which it speaks to the concept of identity. We sometimes say we’re going to find ourselves without really considering the implications of such an assertion. But there is something fundamental about it. It is part of the human reality, the human journey, to claim the self – to consider oneself an autonomous entity. This passage from Exodus, I believe, inherently condones such a quest. If God is “I AM,” it begs the question, “Who, then, am I?”
The problem, of course, is that none of us has a sense of identity as clear as the one articulated in Exodus. In fact, not only are we unable to articulate the self with as much certainty, but I even wonder if many of the difficulties in our world – the strife of human relationships – the never ending scenario of one person or group oppressing another person or group – if this is fundamentally related to a flawed construction of identity. That is, when identity isn’t claimed for the self but is rather prescribed or imposed by another, is this not a way to define oppression?
You ended Core by reading Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Here we get a pointed and sometimes difficult to read account of American slavery and the effects of bondage on the human psyche. Professor Don Snow wrote of “Beloved,” “Here it’s not a matter of restoring the subjective self but of locating it in the first place. The main characters in the novel have lived their lives more as objects than as subjects. Their great challenge is to establish subjectivity, the core ontological quality of moral agency. Subjectivity is a privilege in ‘Beloved,’ not a given.” And the compelling nature of “Beloved,” of course, is that it gives us a peek not simply into an unsavory chapter of American history, but it speaks more broadly to the issue of oppression and the universal importance of claiming the self. It has occurred to me, partially through my re-reading of “Beloved,” that while chattel slavery is behind us, the idea of more subtle forms of oppression (instances where identity is prescribed or imposed on others) happens with some frequency. In fact, much of our lives are about the construction of identities and defending them against a world that would often times prefer to do it for you, to define you for you.
As I said in the introduction of this talk, one of the things I am is a Christian. In fact, I am an ordained Christian minister. I preach regularly in a local congregation, which, for over a decade now, has claimed as part of its identity the moniker “Open and Affirming.” That is, the congregation has publicly and specifically declared that those of all “sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” are welcome in its full life and ministry. This particular facet of our identity is well known throughout the community and it is conceived by many (both within and without the congregation) to be part of the church’s broader commitment to social justice of all forms. Recently a minister from a different local church and I were having a conversation in which he rather nonchalantly insinuated that our church is not, in fact, Christian. What he didn’t understand, and frankly what I fear at times my own congregation doesn’t understand, is that we don’t claim an “Open and Affirming” stance despite our faith, we do so because of it.
I share the story to illustrate that what that minister did there, rather subtly, happens with great frequency and in many contexts. Just as he decided to hand me a new identity as a non-Christian, so too have you been handed and will be handed many identities throughout your life, some of which you may not want to accept. Our identities are consistently being defined and redefined often for us, and often without our permission. And the process of defining and claiming ourselves at times feels like a struggle. It’s difficult. It’s so difficult that not even Superman can do it. Really. As some of you may have heard, it made the news in recent weeks that the super hero who has long maintained the motto of standing for “truth, justice, and the American way” is fed up, and he is considering renouncing his US citizenship. And he can do that, right? That’s one of the options. If the identity we claim as our own is conflicted, or complicated, we can simply surrender it. If this is what it means to be an American, I’ll move to Canada. And how many people have said, if this is what it means to a person of faith, count me out. We can do that. People do it all the time.
But what I urge you to do. Indeed, precisely what I think your Whitman education has equipped you to do is to stand up, and claim yourself for yourself. If your country doesn’t play nicely with others, don’t quip about revoking your citizenship, and if in a terribly unlikely scenario Whitman College, your alma mater, should get careless and stop living up to the kind of academic institution you were once proud to call your own, don’t simply shrug off your alumni status. The real work is in claiming for yourselves and indeed shaping your identities to be the best versions of them they can be.
You can frame the life that sits ahead of you in lots of ways. You will, of course, dance with the seduction of material success. We all do. But consider framing what lies ahead as a journey of self-discovery – a journey to actively find out who you are in the most fundamental ways, and to resist tacitly accepting what the world would like to give you. And I might add, not only should not let the world define you, you should be wary of falling into the trap of defining others. You are soon to be graduates of Whitman College, which of course is not only now a part of your identity, but I hope a tool you will employ wisely as you set about your life-long process of self-discovery.
Congratulations class of 2011 and Godspeed.