“Who am I?” I have heard that question repeatedly since I started working with high school students. Looking back, there was a time when I struggled with that question myself. I, too, experienced an identity crisis. Especially during my college years.
At first, it began simply as a sense of confusion with the questions popping up in my mind like “who am I?” “why am I here?” “what is the purpose of my life?” When answers didn’t become immediately apparent, I felt unfulfilled, anxious, and depressed. All this instilled in me a profound sense of insecurity. I tried to resolve that insecurity with every exciting thing that I could find to distract myself. Yet, the more I tried to run from it, the more frequent it followed me. Slowly, in this exhausting attempt to escape, everything became meaningless to me. One of the characters from the Book of Chuang Tzu helped me realize what I needed to do to end this futile attempt of escape.
Chuang Tzu tells the story of a man who was scared to see his shadow. He tries to run from it but realizes wherever he runs, his shadow always follows him. I was that man, trying to run away from my shadow of insecurity.
This commenced a struggle to get out of that darkness. I decided to face my insecurity by letting go of my control. When the crisis and its accompanying questions entered my thoughts, I’d sit down and invite them in instead of fighting against them. It’s like when you are in a room, and suddenly somebody turns off the light, everything goes dark and you can’t see a thing. But when you close your eyes and calm yourself, your eye adapts and is able to see from very little light. At that moment when I let go of control, I began to see. The answer was there, a distant light helping me see in the darkness—a memory from my adolescent years back in Vietnam.
When I was in middle school, I didn’t consider myself the brightest kid. All that I could see in me was a sense of inadequacy. I often thought, “I’m not worthy,” “I’m not good enough,” and “I don’t really matter.” I felt this way until I met a math teacher who saw something in me I couldn’t see myself. This teacher helped me realize my potential to think logically by giving me the skills necessary to solve complex math problems. I remember one time when I’d found the solution to a challenging math problem, he told my fellow classmates, “An is one of the best students I’ve ever had, and you should learn from him.” What he said changed my life forever.
This teacher simply told me something about myself that I had never heard before, and it made an impact on my life. By reminding me that I can be more than my own perceived limitations, he gave me a new identity and made me a new person. He told me who I am.
The answer to the question of “who I am” is not simply a fixed quality that I have, but the potential to become what I can. Therefore, by myself, I can never find the answer to the question, “who am I?” Yet, what I can do is to find those who can tell me who I am, not just simply in words but in their genuine appreciation of me as a person. That’s something we all need.
This memory helped me recognize that Christians have that “other” who reveals our identity to us. That person, too, is a teacher. He knows me and has been following me, like a shadow, since I came to this world. He is always there, behind me, before me, around me. He knows me better than I know myself, and he cares for me better than I care for myself. He is my mentor, brother, my companion, and my dear friend. His name is Jesus.
The man in Chuang Tzu’s story realizes that if he stands in the shadow of something else bigger than him, then he would not need to run away anymore. As for me, I now choose to stand in the shadow of the One for whom “darkness is not dark…and the night shines as the day.” 1
- Psalm 139:12 ↩