One day when I was about 8 or 9 years old living in Southern California I had a conversation that would significantly impact my life right up to today.
A group of the neighborhood kids were heading out on a bike ride. We might have been going to the park in our neighborhood or to the makeshift BMX “track” left by some CalTrans workers after finishing some road repairs. Either way, as we left my house one of my brother’s friends, Shane, looked at me and said, “So, you surf.” This was not a question, but a statement. It was out of place since we were riding bikes not going to the beach or even talking about the beach. Yes, we lived a few miles form the ocean, but his statement caught me off guard.
“No,” I replied, “I don’t know how to surf.”
“Sure you do,” Shane shot back.
“Um, no I don’t.”
“Well, you shirt says you do.”
I looked down at my yellow shirt expecting to see a kick-me style note taped to my chest stating, “I like to surf.” But there was no such note. All I saw was a surfer riding a rainbow colored wave (cut me some slack this was 1980).
It was then I understood the clothes I wear speak for me. And sometimes they lie. My surfer clad, 1980’s, rainbow wave shirt told Shane I surfed. It was not enough that I liked the shirt and thought it was cool. Somehow by wearing the shirt it contributed to my identity, even if inaccurately. My shirt spoke for me and told other people what I liked to do.
It is nothing new to understand that our clothes reflect something about us. Our threads can tell others we are fashion forward and trend right or not. That we are hygienic or not. Or they can project an accurate image of who we are or an inaccurate image of who we want people to believe we are.
But when you start to strip away all the false providers of who we are, there is the tendency to becomes lost in the unknowing of who we really are. Knowing we are not our work, our hobbies or our clothes, that we are not our titles, income level or the cars we drive we can leave us with the question, “Then, who am I?”
I recently experienced this confusion while shopping for a new hoodie. The one I have now is a hand-me-down from a friend and I bit too small. And since I am traveling to the Middle East soon I thought having a new one would be good since the desert can get chilly at night even during the summer. Like most people I wanted a hoodie that was quality one, a cool one and one that I liked. But I got stuck picking one to buy.
The reason for this is that I am in the mist of distilling my identity and I am feeling a little lost (hence posts like this one). My mixed up ideas of who I am impacted my shopping for a simply hoodie. Battered by thinking I should get one that supports a cause (is that me?) or one that displays my faith (is that me?), one that supports a friend’s business (is this me?) or one that reflects one of my hobbies (or is this me?), I found myself paralyzed. It was easier to say, “No, that’s not me” than it was to be affirmative about who I am. I found it was so difficult to chose a hoodie, after spending a more than normal amount of time looking for a simple sweatshirt, I still don’t have one.
Now, this might seem trite or silly, but I think it is necessary; the uncertainty caused by searching for our true selves, that is, not the hoodie. When we enter a new landscape we lack the usual landmarks that tell where we are, where to go and that we are safe. When we cast off the usual voices that tell us who who we become lost in the uncomfortable silence. The clearest signs and usual maps will not work in this new land if we no long trust them to provide clear direction. The only way to make a new location feel like home is to get lost wandering around until things look familiar, feel comfortable and get worn in.
To understand one’s self we have to travel through places that are unfamiliar to us. To understand who God have truly created us to be we have to shed the erroneous identifiers we, and others, have contributed to our identities that speak untruth to and about us. We have to be willing to wander, explore and roam around in uncharted or long forgotten parts of our hearts, minds and souls clinging to only one heading pointing us in the right direction: the imago dei.