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Who Am I and Who Will I Be?

Sat, Jan. 09, 2016 Posted: 11:53 PM


Recently I have been reading a book my son gave me for Christmas, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by British neurologist Oliver Sacks.1 Dr. Sacks tells the stories of people with strange neurological disorders that alter their mind, body, perception, and personality. One man lost all memory of events past the end of World War II and for the next few decades imagined that he was still a young seaman. One woman, “The Disembodied Lady,” lost her sense of the relative positions of her own body parts and had to use her eyes and concentrate intensely to “find” and move her limbs. The man in the title was an accomplished musician who was robbed of the ability to recognize faces:

Not only did Dr. P. increasingly fail to see faces, but he saw faces when there were no faces to see: genially, Magoo-like, when in the street he might pat the heads of water hydrants and parking meters, taking these to be the heads of children.

Dr. Sacks tells these stories with great respect for the personhood of each individual.2 In the words of the book cover, “If inconceivably strange, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling these people remain deeply human.” Reading the book and thinking what it would be like to face severe neurological impairment made me reflect on the whole question of identity and what it means to be human. What makes us who we are? Where do we get our personhood?

I thought about the question “Who am I?” I am a daughter (I have been since the moment I was conceived!) I am a granddaughter. I am a sister. I am a niece. I am an aunt. I am a wife. I am a mother. I am a grandmother. I am a neighbor. I am a friend. I am a classmate. I am a writer. I am a colleague. I am a teammate. I am a child of God. I am a member of the Body of Christ.

As I thought about who I am, I realized how much of my identity is derived from my relationships. I have been shaped by all my interactions with other people—from the family I know most intimately to the colleagues I know only through email and the people I cross paths with and never even know their names. Our identity is inextricably linked to all the people who have influenced our lives in ways great and small.

I have also been thinking about the question “Who will I be?” Not just over the next few years or until the end of my life, but beyond the end of my earthly life, when mortality is “swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). I know we will get new bodies and be transformed into the image of Christ, but will my core identity still exist in some recognizable form? Will the relationships that have helped create my identity still exist? How will they be different?3

Which brings me to some questions for my friends who believe in conditional immortality—the idea that those who trust Christ as their Savior are granted immortality and eternal life with God, while the rest are annihilated and go out of existence. What happens to someone’s identity when he loses forever those who played a role in forming that identity? If a woman is the only believer in her family, does she cease to be a daughter, a wife, a mother when her parents, her husband, and her children cease to exist? Does God perform some sort of lobotomy to make people forget their relationships with those who are annihilated? How do these losses affect one’s personhood?

Please do not say, “Only God knows.” Of course only God knows! But we should have some kind of reasonable answer to offer to those who have questions about the logic of our faith. And yes, faith does require us to trust without seeing and to believe that which we cannot perfectly understand, but it does not require us to cast logic to the wind.

A book I just read to my little granddaughter captures the uniqueness and value of every human life:

On the night you were born,
the moon smiled with such wonder
that the stars peeked in to see you
and the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”

Because there had never been anyone like you—
ever in the world.4

New parents looking into their babies’ eyes know that they are unique and special little people. They have great dreams and hopes for their children and would never consider them expendable and would be devastated if anything happened to them. They would never put them out of existence and could never forget them. Is our heavenly Father any less compassionate toward us?

And a poem by Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, expresses the idea that after death we will still be who we are, and our relationships will be intact:

Death Is Nothing At All

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

Is it just wishful thinking, or can we truly hope that all will be well?

____________________

1Sacks’s book Awakenings was the basis for the 1990 movie of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. It is the account of survivors of the 1920s encephalitic lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) epidemic. The disease attacked their brain and left them unable to speak or move, but in the late 1960s Dr. Sacks discovered that the drug L-DOPA could “awaken” them from their statue-like condition, with dramatic effects. He tells their stories with sensitivity to the personhood and feelings of each victim. Dr. Sacks just passed away in August 2015.

2This essay echoes a theme in two previous posts, “The Inestimable Worth of Every Person” and “You created my inmost being.” Every human being is created in the image of God and has inestimable value in His eyes, no matter how much that image is distorted by sin, disease, or impairment.

3A young widow writes about how her relationship with her husband has continued after his death in “My Marriage Didn’t End When I Became a Widow,” The New York Times, January 6, 2016.

4On the Night You Were Born, by Nancy Tillman

5 Here is a musical and visual treat for readers: http://thepianoguys.com/portfolio/fight-song-amazing-grace/

Diane Castro