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Relationships, even with people we like, permanently and precariously live on the precipice of disintegration. They are only possible in the context of love, which in turn can only be sustained in the context of another relationship – with the triune God. The reason for this tendency towards disintegration that is recovered through love lies within the beautiful complexity of each of us.  In Part 1 of this post, I describe how our identities are deeply complex, but we are naturally prone to strip this complexity away from others, objectifying them and removing our ability to perceive them as they are. Then in Part 2 of this post, I go on to highlight how interacting with others when we have objectified them in this way distorts them and our selves, but this poses an enduring challenge for Christians called to love their neighbor created to be the undistorted image of God.

Complex Social Identities

I’ve always disliked those first few moments in a group when you go around the circle to briefly say who you are. What do you select to share, or who will you be in that moment? There is no right and no single answer for any person, yet a single answer is given. It is selected from all the possibilities in a moment of finely tuned guestimate of who is there, why everyone is there, and what pieces of the self will help connect with everyone else in the room. A selective presentation of the self is an attempt to manage how others will see me.

But this is just a small moment in an endless stream of normal life for all of us. When I am in the classroom, I am performing my role as the “professor” and not the “father.” When I am the “father” I am not acting as the “tourist” or other random but legitimate pieces of my identity. Maybe pieces of them, as they are within me all blended together, but the specificities of “mountain biker” are irrelevant for the specificities of “son-in-law.” All of these pieces of who I am have relationships in which they come to life. People they were created with and shaped with through time. So, who I am to my friends when biking is in some ways not who I am to my family at Thanksgiving dinner. The language, energy, clothing, it all changes depending on people and context. But more than that, those people bring out those pieces of me so much so that who I am while mountain biking may even depend on whom I am mountain biking with.

When I was in graduate school, some articles about a research project I was working on were published. The project was looking at how often a person reads the Bible and what effect this practice may have on various views they hold. Some of the positions, such as one’s positive opinion about social justice, are in broad strokes more left of center so many of the headlines said things like “Reading the Bible more often can make you more liberal.” While everyone knows that reading the comment section after articles online is just about never useful, the articles were about my work, so I read them. I remember one comment said something along the lines of this study being just another liberal person targeting others with weaponized research, apparently assuming I was a liberal attacking the Bible. Another, on the other end, tossed the findings out of hand because Baylor University (my graduate school) has a religious affiliation so the survey must be tainted. Both found reasons not to believe my work, not because of anything having to do with the work, but because they imputed character traits upon me. They created a non-existent fabrication of me, stripping away all that makes me “me,” and proceeded with the “interaction” on that basis.

Distorted Perception of Others

The pandemic and lockdowns have been hard for all of us. By September 2020, just like everyone else, it had been a while since I had seen my friends. At one point I had sent a friend a message and had not quickly heard back or some similar scenario, and I began to create the conversation that we would have had in my mind. A simple thing that all of us do – run through the possible things I would say and the possible things that he would say, adjusting my opening line accordingly. After doing this rehearsal of sorts for some time it hit me that the friend I was conversing with in my mind was strikingly different from the one that I know exists in real life. How did I get to the point that a person I knew fairly well had slipped into a state of false fabrication in my mind so that the friend I was thinking about was not really the friend that exists? I knew him, but the “him” in my mind was a tiny fractal of the person that exists in real life. And as happens, the fractal I had created was notably less charitable regarding who he is than is acceptable given reality.

We quickly notice when others distort who we are but seem stubbornly unable to clearly recognize the tendency within ourselves to do the same to them. The challenge is that it is very hard to disconfirm warped perceptions of others. This reality is the kernel that makes the unequivocally clear call by God to love possibly impossible to consistently live up to on my own with people I actually do love, let alone those I would rather always avoid. And this truth, it seems to me, is quite possibly the most important lesson we can learn or re-learn given what seems to be an increasingly polemical social world.

Sometimes we can create caricatures of others that are completely off base, and other times we can know a person but distort their identity within our minds through time. In either case, all we do is turn persons into things; we strip away personhood and personality, replacing them with a non-existent entity unknown to the unique person created in God’s own image. In the process, we lose sight of those persons, the God that made them, and ourselves.

I have begun to think of this like a fractal, where an overall shape takes on a complexity that is scalable. As you zoom in the same complex shape is replicated being simultaneously the whole and a piece of the whole. In this way, any given person’s identity is like a fractal. There is the general sense of who “Aaron” is, the rough outline of my complete and whole identity. But there are different parts of who I am, different facets of specificity that are all still me, but they are smaller dimensions or pieces within the whole of me that may or may not overlap with other facets or fractals of me. And even those pieces have more specific pieces within them (“Aaron at the bar with Andy” is in some ways different from “Aaron at the bar with Andy and Derek”). Our identity is complicated with many different facets, and other people at any given time only know pieces of the whole. That piece is indeed embedded within the whole and even if others know us really well it is unlikely to be the whole.

This scalable and context-dependent reality of identities matters because we often rehearse and practice our interactions with others. We imagine conversations like the one I described earlier that we will have or did have but would change. This interactive process gets interesting and complicated because the person we imagine, the person in our mind, is the one we relate to in real life. It is at best only a piece of them as we cannot know all facets of their personhood as our relationship with them in some ways produces the pieces of their identity we actually get to see. Who “we” are and who “I” am are both the cause and the product of interactions. But we often think of others and interact with them on the basis of what we “know.” We conflate their confusing complexity down to just that which we know. Or think we know. When we do get together with them that is the script we use. That is, there is who I am and there is who others think I am, and ideally, those two overlap but this overlap of identity and perceived identity is not necessarily the case or consistently the case.

The challenge is that over time apart, distance, or even estrangement the reality of the other’s identity in our mind folds in upon itself and is less real than it is in the reality of the other person. It becomes a minuscule fractal more deeply embedded within the overall whole unless of course the assumption of the other becomes fully detached from the person they actually are. And then we interact on this basis, with them or with others about them.

Re-complexifying and Re-personalizing Others

To put this another way, in our interactions and relationships even in the best of circumstances we tend towards depersonalization and strip away the created-ness of others. The only way to pull out of this constricted version of the other person is to interact with them in some way where the assumption of who they are is ripped from our mind as possible and replaced by who they actually are. This realignment is impossible in the absence of genuine interest and investment in them. That is, love for them. It is also most likely to happen when the two people are together, interacting face to face, so that all of the information flowing from the other such as facial expressions, clear vocal intonations, etc., are available. It is then that the assumptions cannot be sustained in light of the reality of the other person. The minuscule slivers of the other’s fractalized identity suddenly (hopefully) balloon into who they are, in all their created, image-bearing grandeur. The minuscule fractal of them in our mind is replaced by a larger fuller version of who the other is with us, although still unlikely to be the whole.

Aaron B. Franzen

Aaron B. Franzen is an associate professor of sociology at Hope College.  He is broadly interested in identity formation, and especially in how beliefs and values influence the interactions between individuals and groups, often within the context of medicine.

One Comment

  • Jess says:

    This is a refreshing and reflective take on identity in a time when “identity politics” seem to be buzzwords that stir up debate. We move through so many parts of ourselves throughout the day and so does everyone else!! Thank you for helping me to recenter on the Imago Dei more than all the buzzwords.