In mathematics, an "identity" is an equation that is valid for all its variables.
For a human, the definition is similar. A quick search on Dictionary.com shows that most of the definitions of the word "identity" tend to assume "oneness." For example: "the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another" and "the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in personality over time."
I first started thinking consciously about identity when I was taking classes in youth ministry with Dean Borgman, and he asked us to read David Elkind's book, "All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis," which describes a disease of identity known as the "patchwork self." This is a condition that happens to teens, or any age group, when they are under great stress without guides and relationships that encourage wholeness of self. This wholeness is inclusive of one's value system and how one acts in the world according to those values.
The patchwork self is one who never created one homogenous set of values, and thus, acts according to whatever the norm is in the group they are in. An example would be a businessman who extorts money from a company with fellow co-workers, then chastizes children for stealing at the grocery store.
So why is this a problem? Why is it bad that people act differently with different groups? Isn't that just part of getting along? I'm not talking about what brand of soda you like, or what type of frosting should be on the cake. I'm talking about the big things in life that require us to dig deeply into our value system and make decisions appropriately. These decisions forge new destinies.
One image of this that really got my attention was in the movie "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise as a man who is charged by a secret party to assassinate Hitler. After the assassination attempt, communications would be sent telling the outside world that Hitler was dead. When the attempt came, they relayed the false message, and began relaying all the information that a new government had been set up.
A problem arises -- Hitler is not dead. He restores communications and sends out messages to arrest the group. The communications hub receiving these transmissions then has to make a decision. Orders are going out for arrests of both sides. It is utter chaos. The leader of the hub is either committed to Hitler and his government (that is killing people and perpetuating war) or the opposition's node and a revolutionary.
Either way, neutrality means losing. How is one supposed to be trusted if a simple decision cannot be made? In times of uncertainty, who leads? Sometimes situations require us to decide who we are and where we stand. It causes stress until the moment a decision is made.
What are your values? What is important? What decision would you have made?
In the letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Romans he states, "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good." He's calling us to unify ourselves in common goodness with God's purposes.
Meditate on these words for some time, and begin to think through the question: "Who am I?" and "What makes me who I am?" If chaos ensues, begin to work it through -- take some time.
Sometimes there are patches on us that we didn't know were there. The point is to discover and find the oneness that the definition of identity entails. And when you're well along that trail, perhaps you can help a few others start that road and have fun doing it.
Columnist Daniel Griswold is the director of youth at St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church. Follow him at twitter.com/dannonhill. Read his blog at www.danielgriswold.wordpress.com.