Identity—what am I seeing?
When I was in high school, I was surrounded by a culture that was very invested in placing people into categories, and the most important category was race. It was considered a moral duty for everyone to be conscious of their own race and to try and reckon with what that meant. I was taught that for some people it meant they were doomed to a life of struggle and oppression; for others it meant contending with the “fact” that they were inherently prejudiced people, and that, because they occupied positions of privilege, they had unwittingly benefited from the prejudices of some, which had resulted in the oppression of others.
Coming from a racially mixed background, I found these cultural rules confusing. At different times I was able to experience both sides of this divide, but I didn’t seem to fit in perfectly anywhere. Furthermore, I recognized that everyone has complex and varied experiences related to the way they look, and I wanted to understand and respect those experiences. As a student of Christian Science, however, I was also unsatisfied with a view of myself and others that reduced identity to physical characteristics—and seemed to make them more important than everything else.
I had learned in Christian Science Sunday School that we are all created in the image and likeness of God; that God is infinite good and is spiritual, not material; therefore, our true identity is not in bodily characteristics, but in the reflection of infinitely good spiritual qualities, such as intelligence, kindness, and generosity.
I didn’t seem to fit in perfectly anywhere.
Despite this, my experience remained a challenging one. Rather than the Spirit-based idea of identity I had learned about in Sunday School, I was constantly confronted with an aggressive matter-based picture. Also, confusingly, I found that there were aspects of my place within that picture that I actually enjoyed. By occupying the position of “minority,” I acquired a certain “specialness.” My status, according to this matter-based view of identity, conferred upon me a certain authenticity and a kind of moral authority. I even found that this authority gave me power over my nonminority teachers. (I never wielded it, but it was sobering to be aware of its existence).
Throughout this time, I was occasionally also the focus of hurtful, racist attention—from being on the receiving end of a racial slur to missing out on an opportunity or being kept out of an activity. But I was conflicted about the way in which these experiences raised my social capital amongst my friends. On the one hand, as a teenager struggling to feel comfortable in a complex social environment, I was pretty much willing to accept whatever social capital I could get. On the other hand, I couldn’t help feeling that it was just another way in which I was being categorized and judged by the color of my skin—and that didn’t sit well with me, even when it resulted in what felt like positive rather than negative attention.
I was fortunate to have a Sunday School teacher who was not only willing to address every issue I brought to class but also able to discern my spiritual need, which came down to considering the question “What am I seeing?”
I contemplated how I was seeing myself and others. Was I seeing myself as a collection of physical characteristics—and maybe a few character traits such as diligence and determination? Or was I seeing myself as wholly spiritual—naturally reflecting God’s strength and goodness? Was I seeing others as limited mortals, hampered by and unable to see past their own narrow experiences? Or was I seeing them as God’s immortal reflection, expressing openness, compassion, and understanding?
As I wrestled with these questions, I was directed to a passage in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures in which Mary Baker Eddy explores the question “What is man?” (The word man here represents the true identity of everyone.) Her response to this question begins: “Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements. The Scriptures inform us that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Matter is not that likeness. The likeness of Spirit cannot be so unlike Spirit. Man is spiritual and perfect; and because he is spiritual and perfect, he must be so understood in Christian Science” (p. 475).
I had experienced several physical healings, and I understood that those healings came as I let go of a limited view of myself as mortal and material. But I had not had much experience with allowing similar insights to bring harmony to my relationships with others. I realized that in order to find peace and see progress in this aspect of my life, I had to affirm that same understanding of myself and others as wholly spiritual and good. When I applied these ideas to the concept of race, I found that in seeing myself as the expression of God, divine Love, I was giving others the opportunity to see me that way, too. And I found that I was able to see and honor each individual’s unique identity while recognizing, above all, our brotherhood and sisterhood as children of God.
Although I can’t say that I was never again on the receiving end of a racist comment or action, it is true that the frequency of such occurrences was dramatically reduced. And while I’ve been in many environments where, from the point of view of race, I was the odd one out, I’ve almost universally been welcomed—not as a representative of a given identity group, but as an individual—and valued for the unique qualities I was bringing to the table. I’ve relinquished a limited, matter-based view of myself and others for one that not only allows for but expects divine qualities of impartiality and unity. And this spiritual perspective has brought greatly increased harmony to my experience.
Today, our world seems to be just as concerned with the question of identity as my high school was. And while there are lots of definitions available by which to categorize ourselves and others, I’ve discovered there is only one definition that truly governs our being. Because we are created spiritually in God’s image and likeness, we are truly defined by God alone—as whole, good, and pure. Under no circumstances can merely physical characteristics define who or what we are.
In Science and Health, Mrs. Eddy writes, “Thought passes from God to man, but neither sensation nor report goes from material body to Mind” (p. 284). Because matter has no intelligence, we can’t be defined by it. Embracing the spiritual definition of man means seeing ourselves and others as we truly are, unlimited by matter and free to enjoy the abundant blessings of God, Mind. Materially unshackled, we express—we broadcast to the world—individually and collectively, the unity and completeness of God’s creation and Mind’s view of it.
Words from a treasured hymn provide a glimpse of this Godlike perspective:
O Father-Mother God, whose plan
Hath given dominion unto man,
In Thine own image we may see
Man pure and upright, whole and free.
And ever through our work shall shine
That light whose glory, Lord, is Thine.
(Violet Hay, Christian Science Hymnal, No. 12, © CSBD)