Who I am and am not. Navigating middle age identity.

A few weeks ago, I amused myself when I spent entirely too long looking for my glasses, through the lens of the very glasses for which I was diligently searching. The lesson I learned was this, often what I’m looking for is something I already possess. The difficulty is discerning what I do indeed already possess and what is only a perception. A perception I have cultivated faithfully for most of my life. 

As I write this, The United States, along with the rest of the world is in an economic downturn as the result of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Pundits and politicians are on television lamenting the need for people to return with confidence to work, earning wages to then consume on products, goods, and services. It seems our existence has been reduced to one critical vocation, consumer. In capitalistic systems we exist to consume, and when we don’t the system collapses. The issue with this, is that we are far more complex, far more valuable, far more intricate, than a reduction to a mere consumer would imply. Unfortunately, this consumer identity has become entangled with how we see ourselves, with relational and spiritual implications as well.

I am certainly not immune to this identity crisis, and particularly struggle as a man to figure out exactly how it is I am to behave and navigate this thing called culture. My Father modeled hard work and stoic resolve along with loyalty and care for his family. But most of what I’ve learned about being a man, I picked up from a collection of books, movies, and other men. And still, on most days, I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. And now here in a new adolescence of middle age, it is an especially difficult time of abstraction and uncertainty. Existential lostness stalks me, forever just a step or two behind, and occasionally face to face. In this strange time when everything is now in the shadows, rendering everything gray, I find that even the dependent landmarks of my faith have been obscured by the thickness of cultural frondescence. 

In 1961, the Detroit Industrial Mission (DIM) published a provocative essay titled Work: Curse or Joy? This was a group of well-meaning Christians that wanted to evangelize the assembly lines of Detroit’s motor row. What they discovered is that most of the people employed by these jobs were very unhappy in them, and felt as if they were detrimental to their spiritual wellbeing. Before publishing the finished product, the DIM pointed out that “the combination of a rigidly moralistic and ‘otherworldly’ religion combined with deadening labor to retard and cripple the spirit of most workers. The DIM articulated this connection in startling terms: “The moralist God and the factory system are one and the same.” 

“The religious background of most of the men around us is that of the southern sect groups. A few have behind them old world Catholicism. Most are estranged in one way or another from this background…they have good reason for leaving it…the religion with which [many workers] are deeply imbued and from which they have fled but not escaped is the religion of merit, of holiness in moralistic terms, or earned righteousness, of do’s and don’ts, mostly the latter…. The workingman faces the same thing in the work and the religion available to him. God and the factory are one and the same. The man is dominated by them and coerced by them, but he hates them both, because they have refused him his manhood. 

Further they write, “Neither the elements of [the assembler’s] job nor his relationships therein afford him much opportunity to be a man whom others respect and who respects and esteems himself. And so, he attempts to prove his manhood by other means, by drinking the other fellow under the table, by philandering, by success in petty arguments, by violence, by cleverness in gambling. He pathetically tries to prove it by building up his chest and arm muscles, and then by wearing tight T-shirts….When he returns home his wife is reading romance stories concerning actors or statesmen or business and professional men, or watching TV on which a factory worker never appears as hero and rarely as an extra…he is nothing –he is not even a man…at the plant he is basically a statistic, at home a shadowy figure in the chair watching TV with his beer bottle  beside him…But Father and Man he is not.” 

He is reduced. Less than what he was intended. A reflection of the very parts he assembles. Everything in his life teaches him this, including his religion, which is simply a moralistic checklist of rules. Rules which do not impart wisdom, rules that define life but do not produce it. 

Karen Swallow Prior writes beautifully about such a man in her analysis of the Tolstoy novel The death of Ivan Ilyich. Prior observes, “His life was markedly characterized, in fact, by decorum, a standard that, by definition, is based on surface appearances determined by ever changing and fickle taste and manners…His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. As the most famous line from the novel says, ‘Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore, most terrible.’”

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Prior points out, “There is perhaps no more apt object of pity than he who thinks himself exceptional but turns out to be merely ordinary. The tragedy, of course, is not in failing to be exceptional but in the greater loss of rejecting the glories of everyday gifts.” In the end Ivan Ilyich is forced to ask himself the fundamental question with which we must all reckon, “What if my whole life has been wrong?” A question that occupies my mind today. In the end will those that I have traveled with on this journey of life, be more grieved by the inconvenience of expressing condolences, or will they be grieved by my loss. The answer to this question is what I believe to be the secret of life. A question that I cannot yet answer with any degree of confidence. 

I know what I think of myself. It fluctuates with my choices, my thoughts, my feelings. What I cannot account for is what others feel about me. Perhaps that is forever beyond my control? Perhaps I should relegate those desires to the sphere of the unknowable, a business with which I should not occupy myself. And perhaps I should not expend so much energy on attempting to influence what others think of me?

I know that I’m more than a consumer. I know that I’m more than what I do, than what I produce. I am more than my education. I am more than my roles as husband, father, professor. I am more than my experiences. I am more than my history. I am even more than my faith. But what is the more? 

Perhaps my eye glasses prescription needs to be updated?