Closed Identities

The recent mass shootings have hit me kind of hard. We are averaging over one per day. And there is absolute refusal by our lawmakers to do anything about it. But they seem to have no problem acting on other so-called “threats” to children – like banning books, drag shows, and who knows what else. And it’s not just lawmakers who fall into this – there are regular people too who take this approach to events. The complete disregard for actual danger to children’s lives, but an intense attention on other things that are not a danger to children.

Rational arguments go no where. That’s because we aren’t dealing with rationality. We’re at a deeper level. We’re dealing with emotional and identity issues. These don’t have to make sense. They don’t have to be congruent. They don’t have to be logical at all. In fact, most of the time they aren’t.

Identity is something that people have that helps them understand who they are in the world and how they interact with the world around them. That’s my definition anyway. Some people have pretty healthy identities and others are not so healthy.

Some of these unhealthy identities are what I call closed identities. These are people who have determined that their identity is such that it needs extra protection from the rest of the world. These folks are not open to listening, considering, or growth. They aren’t interested and see no value and sometimes don’t have the capacity to do critical thinking or self-examination. They know what they know and have no desire to change that. They have built a wall around their identity in order to keep in what they want to keep in and keep out anything else.

There are as many reasons why someone takes on as closed identity as there are people. It’s not because someone is evil or bad. Often closed personalities come as a result of some experience in life – something that shook the person, something that brought on fear. A closed identity is a protected identity.

Maybe there is a fear of loss of something really important, a loss of part of someone’s identity. This can be very scary for a lot of people. It gives the sense that they are not in control – never mind that we aren’t really in control anyway. But many people need to have some sense of control and order in their lives. A closed identity offers a person the benefit of a sense of control and order in the world. This is especially important when their life is not controlled or orderly. And when the world is not orderly, this becomes even more important for people who need that sense of order and control. Some people just can’t handle chaos or uncertainty or not knowing or complexity or perplexity. These things are too destabilizing for some people. And so a closed identity protects them from these things. A closed identity does this by essentially putting blinders on a person and what they focus on. They only see and hear what they can handle. Everything else doesn’t exist to them – they won’t listen, they won’t look, they won’t consider the possibility.

Closed identities are often accompanied by either/or ways of thinking. There are only two options and you are either right or wrong, a friend or foe. This simplifies everything and offers a protection for the person so they don’t have to deal with the complexities of the world, thus reminding them that they are not in control and that things are not orderly.

One aspect that I think we are dealing with more and more, without really consciously acknowledging it as a society is language. We are not longer in an age or culture in which we can assume that the words used by everyone are understood commonly. When someone used words that are especially linked to identity, values, and symbolism, we see this come through very clearly, but so many make the wrong assumption that everyone defines terms and uses them the same way. They don’t.

One example of this is the word “freedom.” What does it mean? Depends on who you are talking with. Someone who has a closed personality will probably define freedom as free from complexities and complications that would cause them to be uncomfortable and be forced to reassess their identity. This usually ends up being free to impose their beliefs on others – and why not? They know they are right, they may believe that God has granted them a special blessing to impose their beliefs on others so that others may also be right too. All of this gives the person a sense of control and order.

But is it freedom? According to them it is. If you have a more open identity, I highly doubt you would define freedom in the same way. You might define freedom as free to act as you will, so long as it does not impede on others and their freedom to act as they will. Do you see the difference. They are almost exact opposites of each other. And yet, when we have these conversations and terms like “freedom” pop up, are we falsely assuming that everyone shares the same meaning and use? When we do, then we are making a big mistake that leads to further conflict, without clarity.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.  There are rarely common things that people experience, outside of tragedy. Even then we might experience tragedy differently. Look at mass shootings and how they affect and impact different people.

We used to have a meta narrative – a common story and set of beliefs and values that were shared and understood by a society and culture. Now, everything is tailored to the individual wants and desires.  And this shouldn’t be a surprise either though. Our nation has had a focus on individualism. This seems to be the logical result, even if it may be an unintended consequence of individualism.

This goes into our churches and theology as well.  What or who is meant by Jesus when some talks about Jesus?  It’s likely that you are not really talking about the same person as someone else, but rather two very different conceptions of who the person of Jesus is/was and what it means to follow him. 

The key here is being clear with definitions and communication.  And that isn’t easy. It’s like traveling to a different place that has a different culture, maybe a different language, and different set of norms, what is considered rude an appropriate, etc. When you travel you are conscious about these things so that you can figure out how to traverse through the place you are in.

But we don’t seem to do this in our own contexts. When we talk with someone, especially if they are different from you in anyway, you are essentially traveling to a different land, with a different language (even if they are using English too), with different values, mores, and morals. They probably have a different creed they live by too. You can’t approach this lightly. It takes work.

Without that, we are using the same language, the same words, but they aren’t the same meaning.  It’s worse than speaking foreign languages to each other because we hear words that are familiar and we think we know what is being talked about.  But the reality is far different.  We have no clue what the other person actually means, and they likewise have no clue what we mean.  But we make lots of assumptions – most of them are wrong.

And arguments instill because we are facing conversations from our own understandings and definitions of words, assuming that the other person shares these definitions and understandings.  It’s a false and bad assumption. 

And this assumption is based on a past that no longer exists.  On a culture that was more homogenous, that shared experiences, that had shared understanding of things, had shared values, had shared beliefs. 

That doesn’t exist any longer.  Just look at our political division and it confirms all of this.  We are not sharing anything anymore, except anger at one another because what we assumed to be true is no longer. 

We need to start asking “what do you mean by that?”  “Can you clarify what you mean by that term?”  “Can you define what that word means for me so I understand what you are talking about?” 

Ironically, this is the essence of the debate around the use of pronouns in our society.  Individualism pushed us to consider the importance of the individual and their individual experience of life. The unintended consequence is that people are figuring out that they don’t fit the old classifications and are free to be who they are. (There’s that “freedom” idea again, being used one way). And there are people who are rebelling and resisting this, even though they believe in individualism, but not the consequence of it. Because individualism at this point doesn’t offer these folks who are resisting using people’s preferred pronouns the “freedom” they thought it should or would. It isn’t offering them a sense of order and control. It’s actually going against them, creating more complexity and perplexity in the world and for them. And so walls go up. Laws have to be passed to make the “problem” go away, rather than deal with the reality of the situation and make necessary adjustments based on critical thinking and self-assessment. Doing that means raising questions about one’s own identity. And for some people that’s just too frightening for them. It would mean a huge loss and they would feel lost and uncertain.

And that’s just one small piece of it.  Take this same idea into our churches, our politics, our entertainment, our finances, our work, our relationships, and more.  We are in the midst of major shifts. It’s all over the place and will continue to expand.  It’s like a ball rolling down a hill. There is momentum. The resistance to this will probably be stronger and more cruel in nature because it upends the perceived control and order of the world that those with closed identities have clung to. But this is like a last grasp. A final attempt to reimpose an order that provides those with closed identities that sense of order and control. But here’s the thing – once people experience this change, a broader understanding of freedom (there’s that word again), and more, there is no going back. There’s no rewind. There is no putting it back in the box.

It’s like this – Once you’ve seen something that busts through barriers in your mind and heart, you can’t unsee it. You can’t make the rubber band back to its original size once it’s been stretched out. You can’t drive down a road you have driven hundreds of time, and then learn about something so very shocking at one location, and not unsee it every time you drive by going forward.

Your mind has been expanded. Your heart has too. And your identity has been questioned. Even just considering the questioning of your identity for a moment means you’ll never have that same identity again. You’ve expanded beyond that. You’ve grown. It wasn’t easy. It was probably scary.

In a theological sense, it comes down to this – something in you died. And new life took its place. That’s a good thing. Everything is supposed to die at some point. And faith calls on to die to self, so that we can follow and we can experience new life and a new path forward. Holding onto a closed identity isn’t just resisting the changes of the world. It’s resisting nature and what is natural. It’s resisting what you claim to believe in regarding faith. It’s resisting change – something that happens to everyone and is healthy. It’s resisting death mostly because the people who do this have at their core foundation a belief that death is the end. But look around, Spring is in the air, at least here in Central PA. The trees and flowers that were dead just a month ago, are sprouting new life. Nature doesn’t resist change, complexity, perplexity. Nature knows that this is the way things are supposed to be. There is life, there is death, and there is new life. The cycle goes on.

And that applies to us too.


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