Who Am I Now?

Dislocation leads to disorientation. When we find ourselves in a new setting, then we have to rediscover our identity. The old haunts and habits are being replaced. The common familiarities are slipping away. The people we knew are seen less often. Our whole sense of self gets skewed with a shift in location. Our identities are very much crafted from our communities—if we change one, we change the other.

I am now living in Knoxville, Tennessee. I have taken the position of pastor at Graystone Presbyterian Church. I have changed addresses, both physical and electronic. I am adjusting to being part of a whole new group of people to whom I am a perfect stranger. I am mindful right now that how I present myself may make a lasting impression. I find myself aware that I am surrounded by new people, and I am not yet sure what that will mean.

In my previous location I was shaped largely by those around me, but it had a familiar feel to it; it was like a well-worn pair of shoes with which we are comfortable. I could slip into my roles and responsibilities without much thought. I was the pastor. I was the president of the ministerial association. I was a chaplain at the hospital. I was an actor in the community theater. I was someone who had developed many relationships in that place. I was ‘well-known’ for some of them, meaning people recognized me. We all knew how we ‘fit together,’ and that was both comfortable and comforting.

But that recognition was connected to what I was doing in the church and the community. I was addressed as someone who had a position. I was acknowledged as someone who had capabilities. In essence, I was largely a character in the ongoing life of that place. I played a part in others’ expectations. I fulfilled some functions in the on-going corporate life. I was identified by my social connections and disconnections. I was a person of interest or disinterest by the ways in which I behaved and belonged.

Now that I am in a new setting all of that it up for negotiation once again—including how people will even address me. You know you’re new when folks do not know what sorts of names or titles they should use. Am I ‘Reverend,’ or ‘Brother,’ or ‘Preacher,’ or ‘Pastor’? Should they just call me ‘Les’? That feels too familiar for some apparently. Until we get comfortable with the nouns of address, there will be a certain awkwardness that has to be worked out.

People here do not know all the things that I said and did my past. People here are not familiar with how I preached; people here have not seen me in a hospital setting; people here did not know that I played the part of C.S. Lewis on stage. It is as if I have been handed something of a clean slate on which to write new lines and take new directions. There are no set scripts that have to be acted out. There are not definite demands placed upon me. Yes, I have a ‘job description’ that must be fulfilled, but the manner and the means by which I do so are not yet set in stone. There is a sense of openness that was simply not present in the old location.

My sense of identity is not just who I think that I am—it is also who we are together. As Martin Buber pointed out, when I say ‘I,’ then I am also saying ‘You.’ There is no ‘I’ independent of others. Identity is a matter of interchange between individuals and those around them. I did not show up here fully-formed for the role. I did not show up here complete in knowledge and skill to fulfill everyone’s expectations. I did not arrive polished and perfect in any way. The ‘I’ who showed up will not be the ‘I’ who actually lives out life in this place and time. It will only be in the ‘I-We’ relationship that we all find out who we are. It will only be as we engage in exchanges of conversation and connection that we will figure all of this out. Any judgments I make on myself or others before we have actually done some of that will be premature and faulty. Likewise, any who believe they have a ‘handle’ on me before we do some things together may be surprised—they were definitely surprised when I played ukulele at the Hawai’ian-themed meet and greet. Truth be told, I was surprised at myself since I had only picked it up that afternoon.

I am keenly aware that I will be questioned and observed and assessed in the days ahead. It has already started to happen. Those for whom I am the ‘new guy’ will be taking it all in—what I say, how I say it, how I dress, when I am present, when I am absent—all of it will be run through the filters of expectations and experiences and an answer will develop. That street runs both directions. I, too, will be doing the same. Each relationship will begin to have its unique shape and traits.

Who am I now? It is a very real question. And the only way to find the answer is to also be asking, who are we together?

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