The Modern Identity Crisis

We live in a time where almost everyone in our culture seems to get their identity based on how well they perform or achieve in life. This is where we seem to get our worth and affirmation. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous way to approach life in that it can be destructive and sometimes utterly devastating.

You may remember the story of Kathy Ormsby. Ormsby was a pre-med honor student at North Carolina State University. She also happened to be the collegiate record holder in the women’s 10,000 meter run. The day came when she had at last achieved her dream of running in the NCAA Track and Field Championship in Indianapolis. She was the heavily favored runner in the field.

However, something quite unexpected happened during this race. Ormsby fell behind and couldn’t seem to catch the front runner. In a startling move after the race, she ran off the track and out of the stadium to a nearby bridge where she jumped over the side. The forty-foot fall permanently paralyzed her from the waist down.

When we equate our worth as human beings with our individual performances, we put our identities at grave risk. Any type of perceived failure from the perspective of an ego built on such a shaky foundation can easily lead us to conclude that our lives are not worth very much.

How can we be delivered from this modern identity crisis? Tim Keller tells a true story of two young men who attended his church in New York City. They both were exploring the Christian faith and also trying to build an acting career. In telling the story, he calls them Sam and Jim.

Sam was moving toward faith in Christ while Jim was moving away. As Jesus became more real to Sam, he stopped looking to his stage career as the measure of his worth. Then Sam and Jim found themselves auditioning for the same role. It was a very big part in a very big production. If either of them had gotten the job, it would have propelled him to great heights.

So they performed at the audition, but neither of them was chosen. They both were turned down. Jim, the one whom most people would have considered the more self-confident, was simply devastated, while Sam was just disappointed. Sam went out and got a job in business, and after that he kept one foot in acting. Over the years he became very active in the church and was reasonably successful in business. Opportunities for stage and screen acting occurred occasionally, but he engaged in them only as an avocation. His life thrived. Jim, however went into a tailspin. He was angry at himself and the industry and left acting altogether, but he hated any other job he took. He seldom remained in a job for more than a year, drifting from place to place.

What happened? Originally, both men had acting as the core of their identity. It was the main factor in their self-regard. But then Sam had an identity shift. Acting became a good thing but not an ultimate thing. His love of the stage was not evicted from his life, but its stranglehold on his self-image and worth was broken. It became part of who he was but not the essence of who he was. That’s why the rejection of not getting the role could not get at his identity. It was safe, impervious, hidden in Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:1-3). Jim, however had a highly vulnerable modern identity. His failure was an ax blow to his psychological tree. The Rejection went right to the root of what made him feel he counted, what made him significant.

This is a powerful story. We should all realize that we can continue to allow this world to define us and give us our identity, but if we do we should know that the world one day will crush us. However, we can break the world’s hold on our lives by relinquishing ourselves and our identities to become absolutely grounded in Christ’s love and His commitment to our well-being.

Therefore, each of us must choose the god we are going to serve and then we will have to live with the consequences that flow from that choice. This is clearly the ultimate decision that we have to make in life.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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