Two weeks ago I had an identity crisis. It lasted for a week and it all happened while we were on holidays in Sydney. For the entire week I found myself passing people in the street, being served in shops, eating meals in restaurants and sitting on the train, all the time wondering if everyone thought that I was someone other than I was.
I started to take my cues from everyone else as to who I might be. It was weird.
Now I have to explain something at this point. I have an identical twin brother. This is a picture of he and me earlier this year, when he arrived at Sydney airport to pick me up from a flight from Perth.
Anyway, we were in Sydney using my brother’s house as he and his family were away at a conference in San Francisco. Since they live in a swanky part of town a short jog from the Opera House that is close to a train station, but with a village feel to it, we felt morally compelled to take up his generous offer of free accommodation in Australia’s most famous city.
We settled in, unpacked our bags, and then headed off to the local Spanish restaurant, a excellent little place called Delicado just around the corner that my brother had recommended. It was then that my identity crisis began.
Upon entering the establishment, the owner gave me a nice smile, which as she looked at Jill, Sophie and Declan, morphed into a slight rigor mortis grin. She led us to a table, handed us our menus, but with a rather hesitant air about her.
Throughout the meal she and her staff continued to serve us well, although it looked like she wanted to say something, but was holding herself back. We ate our meal, laughed and talked and took first-day-of-holiday selfies, Jill and I smooching for most of them to the disgust of our sixteen year old, and to the goodness knows what of the staff.
I then went to pay and at that stage I decided to put our hostess out of her misery.
“Great meal,” I said “We loved it all.”
“Thank you,” she replied, slightly oddly.
“Look,” I went on, “I just wanted to let you know that I have a twin brother who lives around the corner. He’s away with his family and we’re staying in his house for a week. He recommended you to us.”
The look of relief on her face was palpable.
“Oh,” she smiled, “I did think it was you with….(and there was that hesitation again)…with another family.
Yeah, right lady, I know what you were thinking.
And then I got to thinking about it. Thinking about it too much actually.
And that’s when the crisis began. I went to the gourmet pizza shop one evening. The nonna there beamed broadly and offered me free soft drinks to go. I grinned and nodded and acted like I should know her, almost tempted to ask how old Vincenzo’s prostate surgery had gone.
Then there was the young Pakistani bloke running the delicatessen who seemed like he was expecting a chat I didn’t offer; the bottle shop owner who gave me a hearty “Hi!” and looked a trifle disappointed at my dodgy, cheap four pear cider purchase. I should have just said “The usual Gary and put it on my tab.”
It was fun, but off-putting too. I felt like I had to respond to people as if they knew me, but was wary of being too friendly to someone in the street in case they were just looking past me and interpreted my knowing smile as something more sinister. I felt like I was taking my cues from how everyone else saw me. And I could only keep that up for so long. For a week actually, because then it started to get to me.
We used the train frequently enough as a family to ensure that at least some of his regular fellow commuters would be wondering what was going on. It eventually got to the point where I thought, Blow it, I’m gonna dress up in one of his suits, take a soapbox down to the North Sydney train station and do some street preaching, and give my solidly unbeliever brother some explaining to do when he gets home.
I didn’t, but it would have been fun.
It only struck me afterwards, how, even without an identical twin, it’s easy to allow other people’s opinions about us to to shape our feelings and our performance. The technical – and non-inclusive-language term is “fear of man”.
That doesn’t merely mean we are afraid of people, but that we take our cues, our self-worth, our identity markers from what others think about who we are, rather than from ourselves, or even better, from God. The fear of man means that other humans loom large in our thinking, and God not so large.
The fear of man easily sways us to perform to expectations – their expectations. And like me in Sydney two weeks ago, we become reactive instead of proactive, always waiting to see how others respond to us before making our first move. Needless to say it’s unsettling and psychologically unsustainable.
The real beauty of having our identity grounded in Christ is that our natural fear of man dissipates as we start to mine the riches of what it means to have our lives hidden in him.
We are liberated to be proactive people not reactive people. We are freed up to no longer hide, no longer perform to the expectations of others, but to live in the light of having an identity not tied to who others think we are. There is something profoundly attractive about that. There is something about that that our shame culture could learn from.
The man or woman whose identity is found in Christ and whose confidence is grounded in that, doesn’t then view humans as small, but merely the right size. Such a person won’t fear another human, but they won’t despise them either. They will view them rightly.
In a sense we all live to some degree like I lived in Sydney a fortnight ago. Until we reach the age to come when all pretences fall away, and we see Jesus and each other for who we really are, we always run that risk of reacting to people, or seeking a reaction from them.
And in a social media world in which everyone is watching everyone else all of the time; circling each other like anxious sharks, the truly liberated person is the one whose God is big, and whose identity is wrapped up in Him.
So much so that other people no longer loom large; there merely to be impressed by or to impress, but are the right size and are there to be loved and to be served with an identity liberated by the gospel.
Oh, and when he got back from San Fransisco my brother downloaded a photo of me from a conference website and shamelessly used it as his Facebook profile picture for a few days, just to see who would cotton on.