I _____, therefore I am
By Scott Hughes
“‘I am loved, therefore I am.” Being is a gift of the Other, and it is this very gift that constitutes love; if love does not grant or ‘cause’ a unique identity, it is not true love; it is self-love, a sort of narcissism in disguise.”1 (John Zizioulas quoted in Boren, 107)
We’ve probably heard Descartes’ famous axiom, “I think, therefore I am.” A more modern version might read, “I share, therefore I am.” (Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation).2 Social media is everywhere. Television shows, sporting events, conferences all have unique hashtags to carry on conversations on digital platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. Professor Sherry Turkle, in her books Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, explores how social media has become a way that we present ourselves, our hopes and dreams, and our purposes (and thus our identities) to the world. On social media, we present our best or ideal selves for others to observe. We are more likely to share our vacation pictures than pictures of our messy house, much less foreclosure pictures. We’re more likely to share pictures of ourselves working at a mission or charity function than a video of us fighting with a friend or a spouse.
Social media can feed into another cultural axiom, “I have my life together, therefore I am.” While certainly it is not true for all, a random scan through most social media newsfeeds reveals that while we might have a little trouble with our kids (or pets or spouse or friends), for the most part, our kids (or pets or spouse or friends) are practically angels. According to our posts, we are adventurous, witty, eat good food, and exercise a lot. We see others living the good life through their posts, desire it for ourselves, post our experiences of the good life, and on this unvirtuous cycle goes. This cycle feeds itself and shapes our perspectives and actions.
The introductory quote from Orthodox Christian theologian John Zizioulas presents a very different axiom to live out of, “I am loved, therefore I am.” Grounding our identity centered on being loved of God and in a community of believers can help us stop the unhealthy cycle of trying to keep up with others who appear to have it all together. Instead, we might live out of a more virtuous cycle of being centered as a beloved child of God, responding to each circumstance and situation in life with more joy, peace, grace, and self-control. When we are clear about our identity as a child of God, then we can more easily discern that our purpose is to love God and neighbor. Additionally, as we practice forgiveness and compassion toward ourselves and others, we will also experience lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and well being closer to the biblical notion of shalom.
When we get caught in the unvirtuous cycle, we can lack compassion toward ourselves in thinking that we must have it all together or else cease to really live. The Advent invitation to come to the manger is an invitation to find meaning and purpose (our identity) in Christ. It is with Jesus that we discover what abundant life looks like. The grace, mercy, and compassion we find at a cave in Bethlehem that welcomed foreign astrologers and lowly shepherds welcomes us as we are, not as we wish we were. It is here with Christ that we are transformed into who God is creating us to be. As the Apostle Paul declares, “We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”3
Reflective Questions for Individuals:
- What would it take for you to live in a more virtuous cycle of grace?
- What is one practice you could take during Advent to be more present to those nearest you? (For example, make sure not to check you cell phone when you are in conversation with someone, no matter how many notifications go off! Skip checking Facebook at night and instead do something fun together as a family or with friends.)
Questions for Church Leaders:
- “The numbers of multigenerational households are rapidly increasing in American society.”4 How do we help resource families, especially busy families, to see their ministry is, first, to one another? How do we help those in each generation of adults model their faith to the upcoming generations?
- “Not only does hope employ and give the basis for certain skills, but it is a skill. It is a skill which one learns. We do not learn to lay bricks without guidance from masters; neither do we learn how to hope without guidance from masters…”5 What practices and resources could we share with our congregation to help them practice hope this Advent?
1 Quote by John Zizioulas in M. Scott Boren Leading Small Groups in the Way of Jesus. (InterVarsity Press, 2015), 107.
2 See Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. (Penguin Press, 2015).
4 Roberto, John. The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation. (Lifelong Faith Publications, 2015), 90.
5 Setran, David P. & Kiesling, Chris. Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 158.