“Please help. Who am I?”
Tomorrow I’m catching up with Sarah, and I care so much about her. If it plays out as it has every other time we’ve conversed over coffee—once a quarter for six years—then we’ll scan the universe and barely scratch the surface. But in one way or another, every conversation will circle around this question, like a 747 in a holding pattern, desperate to land: “Who am I?”
Some background: Sarah is 21 and can’t work out what she wants. After 5 jobs and 3 university courses, she’s settled for studying tourism. In a world of supermodels, Sarah feels like a fat failure. She struggled with eating disorders, but finally gave up trying. She went to see a psychologist. Sarah asked “Who am I?” She was made to stare in the mirror in search of an answer. “Look deep within yourself … what are your fears, your desires, your likes and dislikes?” Sarah now has new techniques to manage the self-loathing—constant travel and shopping.
Sarah used to believe in God. But God was confining. The church was controlling. She wants to be free. Still, she prays late at night, sleepless in bed, whenever she’s sad. Sociologists have a name for Sarah’s religion. They call it moralistic therapeutic deism. (Of course, Sarah would never call it that!) For Sarah, ‘God’ is some distant deity who set up the universe and stepped away. This God just wants her to be good, and feel happy—much like her therapist. This God is a projection of her own reflection.
Sarah is in search of an image. She wants an icon around which to build an identity. In this “new branded world” I think Sarah has latched onto iPod—the alternate rock-chick stencil in green, to be specific. Sarah wants to be the sovereign solo artist, listening to her private soundtrack, individually styled and dancing for personal pleasure.
Superficially, Sarah’s life centres on friendship. She compulsively scans Facebook, and nervously checks her cell phone for texts every five minutes or so. Yet Sarah has never really learned to be interdependent—she vacillates between co-dependent relationships, and strident individualism with no strings attached—to do what I wanna’ do, be what I wanna’ be, “freedom.” But it’s always a negative “freedom”—freedom from … freedom from expectations, from rules, from commitment.
It’s impossible to answer “Who am I” independent of a story. There’s a plot to our lives: a beginning, a middle, and an end. We all live in a story. But for Sarah—and many of her peers—it’s not a metanarrative or a grand story. Instead, it’s the sitcom starring moi, a story of secular happiness, where friends, family, and even God play cameo roles. And this story doesn’t have much of a plot.
Take one of Sarah’s luminaries, Lady Gaga, in her song Just Dance. She’s drunk, lost her man, alone, and can’t see straight anymore: “What’s the name of this club? I can’t remember but it’s alright, alright, just dance. … Gunna’ be okay, just dance.”
Sarah has bought into this story. But she’s not confident like her iPod icon. And nor is she popular and edgy like her musical idol. Deep down these ‘answers’ don’t work. She is depressed. The counselling bills are racking up. And so we soar once more around the same question: “Who am I?”
Throughout most of history—and presently across most of the non-Western world—Sarah’s individual story would be couched within two larger stories. Take Africa, with the concept of Ubuntu: “I am, because we are.” Sarah’s personal identity would only make sense within the story of our community. Or take Asia: Sarah’s family name would come first, as this is foundational to who she is.
And community is couched in an even larger story of the Creator. If Sarah is created, then she will only know who she is by knowing from whom she came. For what was she created?
Sarah suppresses such questions. But what if? What if she is not ultimately her own? What if the answer to “Who am I” isn’t staring her back in the mirror? What if Sarah is actually the image—the icon—of a Creative God? Perhaps “the knowledge of God and of ourselves is mutually connected.” Sarah didn’t bring herself into being, so what makes her think she can answer “Who am I” by focusing on her reflection?
Maybe things have changed. Maybe Sarah has grown tired of her glass prison and the echo of an answer. Maybe she’s ready to face the One in whose image she is made, and to find a deeper freedom for commitment—freedom to love.
I hope so. After six years, this plane is definitely ready to land.
 Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162, 171.
 Naomi Klein, No Logo (Hammersmith, London: Flamingo, 2001), 3, 76.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, chapter 1.