With a surplus of identity options out there these days, there is a strong populist, cultural assumption that identity is self-constructed. That is, that our identity is self-chosen. We "find" ourselves and tell a story about how we discovered ourselves. We live out, or perform that identity. And performance requires affirmation or recognition, which then, of course, reinforces (or not...) our self-chosen identity. And recognition is essential to achieving the hypergood of happiness. Recognition is important in the moment, because happiness is happenstance. And so one follows the path of continued affirmation.
This is all fine, if our chosen identity is validated by the people around us. It helps with the closed loop. But when our chosen self is not validated, the seeds are sown for the birth of ressentiment, a narrative of injury. A new story we begin to tell about how our quest for finding our true self has been thwarted by someone, or something.
This assumption, however, is a cultural misconception of how identity is formed. Identity is not solely an internal decision born from a self-enclosed feel. But identity is never self-enclosed; it is always formed through some kind of conversation. Identity is more "socially constructed" than self-constructed. That social construction is significantly impacted through our family of origin (for good or ill), by the cultural context within which our family is situated in our formative years, and then progressively by teachers, friends, literature, media, habits, rituals. No identity is discovered in a vacuum. All identities come out of some kind of exchange, with various conversation partners, yes, including our own internal selves. (Joyce Bellous and I wrestle with this notion in our book, Conversations that Change Us, where we tie these ideas to the constrasting opinions of Piaget and Vygotsky.)
When we buffer ourselves from other conversation partners, communities of discourse, and rest on our own sense of self, creating a hidden closed spin, we also buffer ourselves from transcendence. We mock the necessity to move outside ourselves to know ourselves. ("Nobody else can tell me who I am") Until... we are not validated, or recognized, and ressentiment emerges. We find it "safer" to spin things closed, because this gives us control. We concede that the self cannot/should not ever lose itself in "something more." Charles Taylor calls this "the eclipse of grace." In this hidden closed spin, "transformation" via transcendence becomes something to fear, because transformation reorders the self, over against its own volition, but never without its own full participation.
All identities come out of some kind of exchange. The very necessity of this exchange opens up the possibility that discovering an identity can give us ourselves, by taking us outside of ourselves.
This is the profound claim of the gospel, and it's why the Christian faith claims such a deep identity in Christ -- 'I know longer live, but Christ lives in me.' There is such an exchange at the heart of the Christian life that our identity becomes Jesus. We may lose control of our own story, and that is troubling for the populist views of our times.
The above represents my reflections on and co-opting Andrew Root's language in his book The End of Youth Ministry? -- that is obviously so much more than a book about youth ministry. This is a little synopsis of my engagement with education philosophy, social construction theory, culture formation and discipleship through a Wesleyan lens, over the past 30 years, and how it relates to several highly relevant 'hot topics.'
There are two narratives in Scripture that echo these thoughts. The story of the rich young ruler and his identity search that preferred the closed spin loop. The story of Saul/Paul and his closed spin loop that was blown apart by the emergence of the transcendent, with which he then fully participated for his ongoing transformation.