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Identity: Formation or discovery?

Identity: Formation or discovery?

The topic of identity has recently come up repeatedly with clients I have been counselling.

A case that has made a strong impression on me involves a couple who have been married for almost six years. The man had been sent to Singapore at a young age for his education. He eventually graduated, started working and married a Singaporean. Soon after, he was asked to go home to assist his ailing father in the family business. The initial plan to stay a year or two stretched to four, until the COVID-19 pandemic provided the push for them to return to Singapore. Now, however, the husband’s parents and family business are putting pressure on the son to move back to his home country.

The wife is averse to moving as she feels her life and their marriage took a backseat in the years abroad. Her husband was immersed in the family business and the couple’s plans for where they would eventually live and even to start a family kept being put off. They had not been able to find a resolution or even to talk about it. It has come to the point that the wife is considering divorce so that she can have more control over her life.

Now what has this to do with identity you might ask?

In counselling the couple, I see how conflicted the man is about the role he should play. Should he be the dutiful son (although he is not the only son and has three siblings) or prioritise his spousal role and marital responsibilities? Should he return to the land of his birth to live and work or stay in Singapore? Or, some may ask why the wife will not build a new identity for herself around her husband and his home country.

The role the husband chooses at this juncture in his life will impact the identity he wants to embrace. Husband and wife are at the point where they are trying to determine the future they want and thereby express something of their personal identity.

Identity is not only what we are forming but also what is shaped by past experiences, be they failures or successes. Moreover, our identity is also influenced by others, their expectations and values. So, who we are is not just what our government-issued identity card shows; our identity is constantly in a fluid state.

Sadly, few of us are content with who we are. We want to be more capable, popular, admired, etc. We think ourselves not tall, slim or attractive enough. Self-improvement books, seminars and image consultants, together with the cosmetic and aesthetics industry, feed on vain attempts to improve our image and our identity.

The reality, though, is that our identity has more to do with what is within us than on our external appearance, and with what we do rather than what we have. One may have millions in the bank but what they do with their money determines if they are generous and compassionate.

More importantly, who we are also depends on Whose we are. As believers, we must remember that we are “owned” twice over—first by being created and then bought with a price. Belonging to God means that what I do with my life is dependent on what my Maker and Owner wants of me.

As we come to the close of another year and cast our eye toward the next, let us reflect on a few questions: What do you want your actions to say of who you are? Does who you are also point to Whose you are? How does our transient earthly identity prepare us for our permanent eternal identity?

Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award, received in 2011, and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.