When I was in my twenties, I liked to think that I had some stuff figured out, particularly stuff that others did not know. One thing I used to tell people (a lot) was: You don’t really know yourself until you strip away all the voices that influence you. Once those voices are gone, then you find out who you really are. It sounded incredibly insightful to me. Whenever I would share this bit of wisdom with someone they would always furrow their brows and nod their head, as if I had just solved a hard math problem for them. Then I would give them a smirk and a wink as if to say, I just did you a huge favor.
Despite my best intentions, that bit about the voices is a load of garbage; and it took me ten extra years to finally realize it.
Here are some fun facts about me. I am of Polynesian and Arabic descent. My mother’s grandparents were Palestinian and Syrian. My father is Samoan. I was born in Pago Pago, American Samoa and came to the states before I could crawl. For the longest time I had difficulty figuring out where I was on the Polynesian/Arabic spectrum. Technically, by blood, I am more Samoan than anything else. But I did not look or speak like other Samoans I knew. Then again, I did not look or speak Arabic either. So who was I, really? That question haunted me all my life.
When I was a teenager I thought maybe I should learn Arabic in the hopes that I would discover my Arabic identity. I did not last very long once I realized how difficult the language was to learn. When I was nineteen I joined a Polynesian dance troupe in the hopes that I would discover my Polynesian identity. The entire time I felt like an actor pretending to be Polynesian onstage. I was still no closer to answering the question of who I was.
When I was twenty-two I had the opportunity to go to Japan and work. I loved being gone from home so much that, when I came back to the States, I decided to keep traveling. I got in my truck and drove up and down the west coast, finding work occasionally. I made it to Canada and got stuck there when the government closed the borders right after 9/11. During my travels I began to realize that with no parents or friends telling me what to do or what to like, I finally got to make those decisions purely on my own. This is the circumstance out of which I formulated my faulty wisdom. You don’t really know yourself, who you are, what you like, etc. unless you strip away all the voices influencing your life. Once you get rid of all those voices, what remains is you. I was living that at twenty-two, and it felt liberating. It felt like I had cracked life’s identity riddle.
Now, in my thirties, I realize the mistake I made in coming to that conclusion. In a sense I was on the right track. You are dramatically influenced by your surroundings, including the people around you. That part is true. What I did not realize is that, once you strip away everyone else’s influence on your life, you are still influenced by your external environment. Running out of money influences your plans to do, well, most everything. Your hunger influences you to eat. Your body’s tiredness influences you to sleep. In reality just about everything you do is in reaction to an external factor. So the real question is:
How can you know who you are if your life is a series of reactions to something else?
That is the six million dollar question, properly formed.
Hannah Arendt says, “The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises.” As a matter of fact, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities…” In other words, the future is too inconstant, too unpredictable to keep a stable sense of identity over time. However, since a promise is a declaration of a determined future outcome, we can make promises to still the chaos. We can decide to be the constant amidst inconstancy, the certainty amidst uncertain circumstances. This is how we can know who we are today and who we will be tomorrow. Incidentally, this is also how others can know we are and who we will be.
When Moses asked God whom he should say has sent him to the sons of Israel, God said something very interesting. He said, “’Ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh” or “I am who I am” (NASB, Exodus 3:14). Scholars have noted that the imperfect tense seems to express a future rendering, which probably should read, “I will be what I will be.” In other words, God’s response entails an identity rooted in His promise to be the same yesterday, today, and forever (Psalm 90:2; 102:27; Hebrews 13:8). But more than that, God’s answer to Moses is the foundation for every promise He makes to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Who promised that they would be freed from slavery? ‘Ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. Who promised that they would return from Babylonian captivity? ‘Ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. Who promised that the Messiah would one day come? ‘Ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. And for us believers, who promised that the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:52)? Who promised that whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life (John 3:36)? ‘Ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh.
God’s response to Moses is the key to understanding our identity. God will be what He will be, today, tomorrow, and forever. The ocean of uncertainty that is the future has an island upon which we can rest: the certainty of God never changing, of keeping His promises to us. Likewise, when we act as promise-keepers, we image our Creator as we were intended to do. As Lewis B. Smedes writes, “A promise, then, is the human essence of freedom after the style of God—it is your freedom to be there with someone even though you cannot tell what ‘being there’ is going to be like for you.” This concept is so radically paradoxical to the romantic, Hollywood notion of remaining free from obligation and discovering yourself through collected experiences. To the world, promising yourself (particularly in relationships) is stagnation, repression, frustration. But this is false; promise-keeping is true freedom. It is the freedom from reacting to external circumstances, the freedom from whatever uncertainty the future holds. “I am well aware that much of what I am and what I do is a gift or a curse from my past,” writes Smedes. “But when I make a promise to anyone I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Therein lies the paradox: Lose freedom to keep freedom. Sounds like, “whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
So “finding” or “discovering” who you are is the wrong way to look at it. “Determining” is better; that is, we will not be able to find our identity through our various reactions to external stimuli. What we can (and should do) is forge our identities by our image-bearing, i.e. our promise-keeping. I know who I am now; and it has little to do with my blended ethnicities or my friends and family’s voices. I am a follower of Jesus Christ, I am a husband, and I am a dad, all because I promised to be. And you know what? Tomorrow, I will still be those things.
So you want to know who you really are? Ask yourself: What promises am I keeping?
Smirk. Wink. I just did you a huge favor.
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (?), 237.
 Lewis B. Smedes, “Controlling the Unpredictable: The Power of Promising” in Christianity Today (?).