Who am I?

IMG_2833Identity – “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.” (Oxford dictionary definition).

If you had to answer the question what is your identity I wonder what you would say? I am guessing that for most of us the answer would be a mixture of family, relationships, faith, beliefs, values, experiences, careers, callings and the list goes on and on.

We build up a structure around us of different things, marriage, kids, work, friendships, sport and those structures define us. We are marked and can be described by the things that we do, the things that we like, the people in our lives – so I am an Appleby, a lawyer, Lucy Forder’s mum, I have awful taste in music (apparently!), I run, I love people, I am over emotional etc. etc. – these things make me who I am.

What happens when those things are taken away, when those structures come tumbling down – who are we then? When the things that we put so much faith and importance in let us down? When we are made redundant or a relationship breaks down? When illness comes? I know when those things have been taken away from me, when my marriage disappeared overnight, when my career suddenly and unexpectedly took a different turn I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore.

The last few months have been a really significant time for me, in a really positive way, in a way that I cannot fully articulate and in ways that feel too personal to share, even for me, but as I reflect back three particular things stand out all around the subject of identity.

  1. I work for a Christian charity, which works with the vulnerable and marginalised throughout the British Isles. Every day at midday we meet to pray for half an hour, for the world, for those who are unwell, for those we work with, for each other – normally it is just a small group of around 6 people and those times have been incredibly precious to me over the last few months. About 6 weeks ago we were chatting and we were talking about positive thinking and how we handle the harder times in life. One of my lovely and incredibly wise colleagues made a comment about how sometimes we can stay in the valley of death too long because it becomes a safe place, it feels easier to stay there even though it is a place of pain because actually it becomes familiar. Now that comment was not directed at me, as I am not sure he even knew my story, it wasn’t directed at anyone in particular but it was like God himself had come into the room and spoken those words directly to my heart. Something pretty massive shifted in my heart at that moment as I realised that that was me, that I had stayed in that valley of death, and that John’s death and to some extent my dad’s death, had become my identity. It was like a light had gone on and I knew that that was not what I wanted my identity to be any longer – it was like after nearly 9 years a weight had been lifted and a freedom had come. It was incredibly significant for me.
  1. A few weeks ago I was in the pub catching up with a friend. Across the room I spied a senior partner from the firm I used to work for with another person from that same firm. All the familiar feelings of anxiety filled my heart but I manage to talk myself down thinking I could avoid them seeing me and I went on chatting to my friend. A bit later on I went to the bar to get some drinks and they walked past me. They stopped, started looking at me and were clearly talking about me – the senior of the two came over to me. He asked me what I was doing work wise now and as I explained his whole tone and attitude towards me changed and I felt like I was being sneered at. All those feelings of failure filled my heart so I just, in my head, started to remind myself I was God’s daughter, that my identity was in him, not rooted in what I did or how much I earned or who I worked for and a peace returned.
  1. I have always been a daddy’s girl – my dad was one of my favourite people. He was far perfect and in fact a lot of the time could be a pain in the arse but he was a lovely, kind man and a good dad. I used to look forward to seeing him and chatting with him. My dad always had my back, always loved me and was always proud of me, when my heart broke his heart broke too, no one could have loved my child more – he was a good man. He was also a fundamental part of who I am – parents good or bad have a massive impact on who we become in life and the paths we take. So when that parent is suddenly no longer there it does change you – it shifts the world in ways that are hard to explain. I have realised during the last few months that actually because my earthly father is no longer here I am relating to God, my heavenly father, much more as my daddy, I find myself referring to him as daddy and talking to him in a different way – almost like because my dad is no longer here to talk to, to support me and to love me, I have allowed God to fill that space more.

As I sit back and reflect on the last few months and the last year, which has been a crazy, amazing year of massive change I have realised that as tough as the journey has been it has bought me to a point where my confidence in my identity as a child of God is greater than it has ever been. I don’t want my identity to be in anything but Jesus, that actually it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. Maybe and probably, well actually definitely, I have had to be broken to get to that point, but I am so thankful for the freedom and hope that has come from that brokenness and for those wise angels that helped me along the way!

Do I only matter because of what I do?

The other week I was at a party and was introduced to someone I had never met before – I immediately saw their eyes go to the rings I wear on my right hand and they commented that obviously I was married and so was my husband at the party – they certainly didn’t get the response they were expecting. Now some would say I should have taken my wedding rings off years ago but I have never quite been able to bring myself to do it partly because I like my rings and they were made from a ring I had inherited from my grandmother and partly because I also like the fact that they symbolise a really important part of my past.

It got me to think about how we classify people in our minds and make judgments so quickly about people without really knowing very much about them, based upon external factors.

I am sure that person’s question was completely innocent and asked with the best of intentions but it made me think about the questions I ask people and my motivations and thinking behind those questions. Obviously it is important to ask such questions in order to get to know a person, and to express interest in someone and their life shows them you care but how do I use the information I am given – if someone says they are married do I automatically think about them differently than if they say they are a single person, or divorced or widowed – I think if I am honest sometimes I do and then I rationalise that response and always come to the same conclusion that I am being completely ridiculous and such a response is all about my insecurity. I massively struggle with feeling like a failure because I am widowed, that I am not as worthy or have not made it like all the happily married couples I am surrounded by, because I do not have anyone in my life or dare I say it, because in my harder moments, I feel like I am not as important to God – again that is a total heart response, a lie, because as my head tells me that is a totally irrational thing to think, but the world, the church, society tells us that marriage/relationships/true love is above everything else and it very wrongly plants those seeds that if you are not in that place you lack something, you are not as important or valuable.

Maybe for you it isn’t about marital status but rather work – maybe you are a stay at home mum and have at times been made to feel not as worthy as the mum who has a career or maybe, like me, you work full time and feel the guilt of not being there to pick your kids up or go on school trips. Or maybe it is parentage, looks/weight, cultures, a person’s history, the size of houses or cars or holidays or maybe it is education or lack of it. I think deep down we can probably all identify with those types of judgments about others and ourselves. Often they feel too ugly to admit but I think they are probably in all of us to some extent or other.

A few days after the party incident I read an article entitled “Do I only matter because of what I do?” In the article the writer talks about going on a retreat where at the start of the retreat they strip you of your mobile telephone, you are not allowed to tell people your surname or what you do for a living, i.e. all the things we use to impress other people. He reflected upon how difficult he found it at first but as the retreat went on he found himself going deeper with these strangers than he ever normally did with people. He went on to say how much better our world would be if we as humans did not feel the need to throw our ace cards out as soon as we meet people – our careers, our accomplishments, who we know and our marital status but rather look to who people actually are as people.

Similarly a teacher friend of mine was saying the other month how he was really glad he taught in a secondary school where they wear a uniform as he prefers that the kids all look the same as rather than make judgments about them based on the clothes they wear he is truly able to see them as a person with their strengths and weakness, likes and dislikes, that their personalities and characters can come through. He felt that it made him a better teacher.

How often have I found my identity in my job, or my education, or in where I grew up or in the people I know? I am ashamed to say far too often. Is my head turned by a fancy career, or an impressive business achievement or an attractive face or personality or a nice car or house? Again probably far too often.

Last week a colleague was talking about how we respond to people – do we respond to them in the framework of our own values, culture and experiences or treat them as a child of God and respond to them as God would do. Do we treat ourselves as children of God or do we judge ourselves by human standards? It really, really challenged me. It made me realise that along the way my values/mindsets had become skewed.

Whilst I totally believe God has a plan for our lives, that he blesses us with good things, and that he uses us in the jobs/situations/relationships we are in they are not the priority for him – he does not love us anymore if we are a High Court Judge or a brain surgeon than if we were homeless and hungry with not a penny to our name, if we are big or small, loud and outgoing or quiet and shy, black or white, gay or straight. He sees our hearts, he loves our characters, he loves it when we are kind and generous, when we forgive, and overcome, when we love as he loves us – he sees the things that matter.

My experience is that God always uses the other stuff – the relationships, the job stuff, the material to shape my character. I am loving being in my new job but there is a wrestle going on inside of me about my law career – I know I am in the right place but for so long, as sad as this sounds, a big part of my identity has been tied up in the law, and so there is a part of me that is grieving that whilst at the same time knowing that probably God is doing a work in me through all of this, a work in my character and in my attitudes, as many people have told me re-shaping my identity.

As I have been thinking about all of this I have been thinking about my John. I have written about this before but on paper John was not what I would have gone for, in fact we were extreme opposites , and my guess is had he still been here we would never have been rich or super successful, these were not things that motivated John in any way, shape or form – John was the most unmotivated by money/status/success of any person I have ever met. God has a sense of humour because actually John was just what I needed, the opposite to all the stuff I would battle with and for. John would go in search of the underdog, he was kind, he was about as good and real as you could hope to be – he was forgiving, patient, gentle (I never heard him raise his voice, and he refused to argue – very infuriating to a feeler like me), generous and joyful. I am so glad God allowed me to see past all the other stuff as I had the privilege of 3 and ½ years with the most amazing man and I get to love and parent his child.

I want to learn again to be a child of God, to love myself as God loves me and to see myself as God sees me – to know although so much of the time I see widowhood, a career left behind, many mistakes and struggles, he sees me as his precious daughter, and he loves me despite and because of those things. I want to respond to people as God does – I don’t want to judge by the other stuff but I want to love people unconditionally whatever their circumstances, because of their hearts and because they are the most precious thing to God. I know it is those places that there is freedom, true love and real satisfaction.