The concept of identity expresses the innate human desire to form a coherent sense of self through making free choices about who we want to be and what we want to do in the context of relationships. 'This includes, but is not limited to, the realms of gender, ethnicity, culture, social role, age group, personality, religion, spirituality, religious community, marital status, vowed life status, and sexuality' (Kappler, 2014). These relationships are formative for our identity in that they exert positive and negative influences on who we think we are and the roles we think we play. Moreover, as our place in these relationships changes over time, new expectations and opportunities arise to make choices to either embrace or reject these new roles as part of our sense of self. Whether we like it or not, these choices become part of our personal identities. We all experience being a child. When we are children no matter how much we might want to think of ourselves as adults we remain children. Becoming parents or deciding not to have children has a certain objective impact on our identities. Once a person has a child, regardless of their actual relationship with that child, being a parent becomes part of their identity. The ways in which we respond to the objective dimensions of our identity arising from our relationships to the world, to others, to institutions, and to time and history contributes to the formation of our own sense of self in the world and the formation of the way other people see us.
Everybody wants to be somebody, to be significant. Everybody longs for an identity. Humans as bodily beings have experiences of the world which are ambiguous. Sometimes humans experience the world as a place in which they seem to be the sole actors, the creators of their own universes. The world responds to the way individuals engage with it. At other times, however, human beings experience themselves as objects in the world. Things happen to individuals that were neither sought nor desired. Sometimes, human beings experience the world as a place that affirms them, that makes them feel that they are worthwhile and that their life has meaning and purpose. At other times, however, humans experience the world as a life-threatening place in which other people treat them as worthless, a place where the natural world seems indifferent to their existence, or to whether they live or die. Of course, all human beings must face the inevitability of their own mortality, their own inevitable and unpredictable death.
Consequently every human being experiences a desire to affirm themselves, to affirm the meaning and purpose of their own lives and their own worth and dignity in the face of experiences that seem to undermine or deny them their human dignity, meaning and purpose. Put another way everybody wants to be cherished and loved. From a Catholic perspective, individuals find themselves through loving and self-giving relationships. Whilst it might seem logical that our identities would be most affirmed by selfish or self-interested behaviour the contrary is the case. Our identities, our sense of ourselves as a person with meaning and purpose in life are most often discovered and affirmed when we are selfless and make a gift of ourselves in the service of others.
The paradox of identity is that it is both something that is always already true and unchanging and something that changes and develops over time. The Christian tradition affirms, on the one hand, that each individual is a unique creation of God possessing an inviolable inherent worth. God created you, loves you, and will always love you. On the other hand, it also takes seriously the reality that this unique individual is nonetheless situated in history. Each person grows through different stages of life, from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, to old age. In all of these stages the essential core identity of the person remains constant. You are still essentially the same person that you were when you were born and the you that you will be when you die. But it also makes sense to talk about becoming a different person as we learn and grow through these stages of life. The child is different to the parent and the parent is different to the grandparent. Yet we can experience being all of these different people as we go through life. Still, we can only experience them by going through life. You can only experience being a grandparent by becoming a grandparent and can only make grandparent part of your identity if it is the case in real life. So, as we enter into different stages of our lives, we will often have to revisit and re-evaluate some aspects of our identity.
This developmental aspect of identity formation—the fact that though you remain the same person, you also change—is important for two reasons. First, one should not expect people at different stages of their lives to think and act in the same way. We talk about the wisdom of old age because the elderly have lived through the various stages of life and have the benefit of a lifetime of experience. Young people can only imagine what it is like to be old, but old people know what it is like to be young. Similarly, parents know what it is like to be a child, whilst children can only imagine what it is like to be a parent. It takes time to develop and mature, to learn what things are really worthwhile doing and which are not. It takes time to learn from one's mistakes as wells as from one's successes. Second, identity formation is an ongoing process that needs to be constantly revisited. Identity formation requires attention and flexibility. An unexplored, unexamined, unattended identity carries its own risks. A person runs the danger of drifting through life imagining that they are someone they are not. Individuals need to understand their changing identity in order to develop that identity or sense of self, in a way that truly affirms the meaning and worth of their life and desire for dignity. Humans need to embrace those aspects of their identity that are positive and life-affirming while recognising and carefully managing aspects that might damage personal hopes and the hopes of others.