I was in the Istanbul airport this summer, standing at Passport Control, while a uniformed officer went through my papers. He was scowling. He looked at my passport picture, then at me, then back at my papers. I couldn’t tell whether his facial expression was the result of long practice or present dissatisfaction. He eventually verified my identity, and I moved on.
If only it were that easy in real life. In a study published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Lawrence M. Berger and Sharon H. Bzostek suggest that the different forms of “biological, marital, and coresidential ties” now common in U.S. homes has made it difficult for children to achieve what has been termed “identity verification.”
In the new social landscape where families are composed “of married and unmarried, opposite-and same-sex partners, and biological and social (nonbiological) parents,” the complexity of relationships can lead to identity distortions and even a failure to establish a stable identity, which “is associated with ongoing (dis)stress, anxiety, and internal conflict.”
Like the friend I know who once described herself as a “garbage can, full of rotting trash.” She formed this identity through her relationships with a sexually abusive dad and a criminally negligent mom, with teachers who looked right past her, and classmates who either mercifully ignored or maliciously teased her.
Then one day a school employee saw her – her pain and fear and sadness. She listened to her and, when she learned of the abuse she suffered, took action. Eventually the girl came to live in her home, where she was loved and cared for.
My friend slowly came to see herself differently. She stopped identifying herself as a garbage can and began to see herself through the eyes of others as a person of value and ability; a person capable of loving and being loved.
Personal identity is formed and then verified within a social matrix. No one establishes an identity on his or her own. It evolves in the context of relationships. People discover and then affirm their identities in the mirrors of the eyes of family, friends, acquaintances and even enemies. And sometimes the image those mirrors project is grossly distorted.
The process of “identity verification” doesn’t just happens with people like my friend, who in the funhouse mirror of her broken family saw herself as a dented and dirty trashcan. It happens with everyone. We discover ourselves in the eyes of others and—this is the scary part—we believe what we see there. So we’d better be careful not to stare into the wrong eyes.
Everyone we meet hands us, in effect, a mirror and says, “This is how I see you” or even, “I don’t see you at all; you’re not worth looking at.” This is expressed largely through non-verbal cues, which even infants take in. Within the frame of others’ responses to us, we see ourselves as loved, hated or ignored; valued, devalued or worthless; loveable, despicable or inconsequential.
Whether we accept or resist the image of ourselves we see in others’ eyes, it becomes a kind of baseline identity for us. We may rebel against it, shout that this is not who we are, and reject those through whom the image is projected. Or we may accept it, either comfortably or sullenly but, either way, the image we see reflected in others can dominate and direct our lives.
If staring into the wrong eyes can leave us with a distorted self-image, are there right eyes into which we can look and find a truer image? There are. The place to begin with is the Church. In a community of welcoming love I can slowly come to see myself as I truly am.
Even more importantly, I can look into God’s eyes. He alone sees me as I am and as I can be. There is no distortion in what he sees. He neither flatters nor abuses. In his eyes I find my true identity. I am the deeply loved child of a deeply loving heavenly Father: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1). Nor will we know ourselves until we see our image reflected in his eyes.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/8/2015