Your Kingdom Come, My Kingdom Go: Dying to the self in the age of iDentity
(Originally published February 25, 2020)
Lately, I’ve been struggling with me.
Who I am. Where I’m going. What has happened to me in the past. It swirls around in my head like a maelstrom, capturing my attention when I’m cooking dinner, watching Netflix, or lying in bed trying to fall asleep.
It’s been about fifteen months now since I unexpectedly had to quit my work as a psychologist due to the sudden onset of chronic illness. In that time, I’ve had to grapple with the loss of who I thought I was, not just as a psychologist, but as a busy person, an equal partner in my marriage, a helper, and a rescuer of others. I’ve also had to confront the fact that the future I planned for myself might not ever materialise from the hazy fog.
Even the writing career I’ve thrown myself headlong into feels at the mercy of agents, publishers, editors, and readers who might yet decide that I should have stuck with my day job.
Most days, I feel unspeakably tender. I frequently live like the recognition of my value and worth is waiting just around the corner in a publishing contract, a cure for my autoimmune disease, or a fulfilling job. If I only had X, I could achieve Y. I could be Y. Isn’t that what I want? Isn’t that what would make me happiest?
A few months ago, I caught up with a friend over coffee. We talked about life roles and transitions, and how my friend, who was about to move into a retirement phase of life, was suddenly faced with a redefinition of her identity. The career which had underpinned much of her working life would soon dissolve, and her life would be defined by new relational roles: grandparent, mother, friend.
I've found that humans seem to struggle most with vacuums. The empty spaces following a departure from a job, the end of a relationship, the abrupt loss of a loved one, or the closing of a chapter—vacuums which have a strong pull of their own. In that moment—sometimes even after we've gotten what we want—we stare into the void. The void stares back into us.
And we discover the platform on which our identity—everything that defines us—rests.
Self-discovery in the age of I
It has often been pointed out that never has our world been so obsessed with understanding ourselves. And why not? As per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, with our requirements for shelter and food and clothing met, we necessarily look to the higher levels of love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation—the intrinsic desire to make the most of ourselves.
Ironically, though, for most people, the path of self-discovery begins not by looking inward, but gazing outward.
Our world is obsessed with identity tags which we collect like some people accumulate Pokemon cards. Straight, gay, black, wife, son, cisgender, Protestant, Muslim, sci-fi/fantasy nerd, Star Wars fan, Samsung enthusiast, vegan, blackbelt, etcetera. Or we can define ourselves by who we are not—not a believer in a god (atheism); not a fan of Lord of the Rings (does such a person exist?); not a bad person.
Psychology, too, is no stranger to categories: Asperger’s, autism, narcissistic personality disorder, psychosis. Even seemingly neutral job descriptors such as doctor or stay-at-home mum or electrician are heavy with their own meanings. Some of those badges we crave, like woke or environmentally conscious. Others we reject, like boomer or Karen.
You might, like me, thrive on dreams. Dreams of being a wife/husband, mother/father, grandparent, pilot, home owner, retiree, writer, artist, or actor.
Dreams that sustain you through long hours of commuting or changing nappies.
Dreams that give your life purpose.
But if you took all of that away, what would you be left with? Who would you be? And who or what might you become?
Your kingdom come, my kingdom go
There’s a rather good saying by Alan Redpath that has stuck with me over the years:
“Before we can pray, "Lord, Thy Kingdom come," we must be willing to pray, "My Kingdom go.”
Those of us who have lost chunks of our kingdoms—to grief, illness, conflict, or other equally erosive forces—understand this intuitively. This world, and everything in it, is slowly fading away, like syllables in an echoey cave (1 John 2:17).
No matter how many identity tags we collect, there will come a time when it will all count for naught. If you’re ever walked through an old cemetery, the most you will learn of each burial plot is a name, the person’s lifespan, and a few pertinent details: beloved wife, loving father, treasured son. And even that information is at the mercy of time and the elements.
I’ve felt this acutely this week, writing the eulogy for my grandfather’s funeral. My grandfather lived a full life across ten decades and two centuries, was a survivor of the Great Depression and WWII, and a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. A bricklayer by trade, he built hundreds of houses across New South Wales, and before that, in west Germany. But as I write the final account of his life—a heavy responsibility—I know the only thing that endures is the hope he possessed that one day, the death curse on all mankind would be lifted (Romans 8:2).
A permanent house
I have the following verse—a reflection of King Solomon—digitally tacked onto my computer’s desktop wallpaper:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain. (Psalm 127:1)
I have it there because I am frequently tempted to make my writing the cornerstone of my identity. Or my dreams of publication, of renown, of acceptance.
It is only failure, disappointment, or rejection which guide me gently, time and time again, to the painful truth: that every effort made in my own strength is doomed to fail.
In The Lord of the Rings, Boromir, mighty swordsman and eldest son of the steward of Gondor—once a great kingdom but now threatened with annihilation by the Dark Lord, Sauron—understands the crippling reality of human frailty when he confides in the ranger Aragorn:
“My father is a noble man, but his rule is failing, and our people lose faith. He looks to me to make things right and I would do it. I would see the glory of Gondor restored.”
Unbeknownst to Boromir, it is Aragorn, the heir of Gondor, who will eventually overcome the weakness of humankind by resisting the temptation to seize ultimate power. Boromir has only to step aside and let Aragorn assume his rightful place as king of Gondor, yet he remains antagonistic to and resentful of Aragorn. It is only as he lays dying, after having succumbed to temptation, that a humbled Boromir finally pledges his allegiance to Aragorn:
“I would have followed you, my brother... my captain... my king.”
Without Jesus as the cornerstone of my life—my sure foundation (Isaiah 28:16)—I am no more than the sum of my parts. Not only that, but I am at the mercy of the world, which is marked by fragility and impermanence and no better than shifting shadows (James 1:17). My empire, like Rome, or Greece, or the fictional Gondor, will come to an end. To achieve a legacy which will last, I must let the Lord build the house. And of that house, I am but one stone among many (Ephesians 2:20-22), included only by his grace.
On the days which are most difficult—where my illness threatens to define me or my dreams of the future seem to fade away into nothingness—I look down, then I look up. I look down, because it is only then that I realise what I’ve been standing on. The shaky foundations of the prideful life I’ve built for myself.
After that, I have only to look up to the source of my value and worth, the origin of my identity: Jesus.
And even as my kingdom slips away, I quietly pledge him my allegiance: my brother, my captain, my king.