Whole fields of science and medicine have grown up around humankind’s search for identity. Fortunes are made by the authors of books about finding purpose and meaning
We seem to want simultaneously to fit in and to stand out, to belong and be apart. Society and culture answer some questions of identity, whether we like it or not. We are assigned race, ethnicity, and gender. Often those categories come with stereotypes — along with assumptions based on income, education, and social standing. But the person we see when we look in the mirror may be very different and much more complex than the person someone else assumes we are.
We characterize ourselves by our affiliations, our professions, our ancestry, our activities, our geographic location, our role in the family, our likes and dislikes, our traits and skills, and by what we own, said Emory University sociologist Dr. Cathryn Johnson, a Midwesterner, professor, and mother who enjoys playing pool.
The proliferation of mail-in DNA tests has added a new layer of depth to the search for identity. Perhaps ironically, the very genome revelations that make it possible to trace our individuality back through generations also makes it clear that all of humankind is related much more closely than was believed for centuries. In his 2018 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, Harvard geneticist David Reich, a pioneer in analyzing ancient DNA, wrote: “The centrality of mixture in the history of our species, as revealed in just the last few years by the genome revolution, means that we are all interconnected and that we will all keep connecting with one another in the future… The genome revolution provides us with a shared history that, if we pay proper attention, should give us an alternative to the evils of racism and nationalism, and make us realize that we are all entitled equally to our human heritage.”
Recognition of common roots, along with the softening of societal taboos, has made the lines defining race and gender more permeable, Johnson said. But this evolution of insight has caused some people to feel threatened and made them more determined than ever to enforce distinctions. The increased visibility of white nationalists, the fervor of anti-immigrationists, and the impassioned debates about transgendered people and restrooms are evidence of that determination.
“We want to feel good about our own group,” Johnson said. “It’s when we say one group is more worthy than another that we get into prejudice — and we do that all the time.”
While we tend to see ourselves as multidimensional, often we label other people based on a single obvious trait that differentiates them from us, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen told an Emory University audience in 2016. We are blind to what we have in common. “The ultimate issue is not only of personal choice and how we should approach our life and how we may think of our identity,” he said, “but also of how we may see others.”
When we are willing to take a closer look, to hear someone’s story, to seek affinity over separation, it is easy to see we are made in God’s image. It is then that we can find both the dignity in our individuality and the divinity in our likeness.
Frank Torres, 67
I’m a quiet person, a quiet person who likes to be left alone. It’s hard for me to describe me. I am a registered member of the Pima tribe, Native American, in Arizona.
I grew up from fourth to seventh grade in an orphanage. I guess I was incorrigible. Every time they put me in a foster home, I ran away. In seventh grade, I called a nun a penguin. It wasn’t the first time. They gave me a choice, a penal institution or an Arizona boys’ ranch. I stayed at the boys’ ranch till junior college in ’71. I married in ’73 and joined the Army in ’75. I went to a lot of different places.
I was single again when I got out, divorced in ’90. When I was in the service, I had committed to something. I got out in ’93 and [everything] went to poop. I was into drugs and alcohol from ’93 to 2016.
After ’93, I lived in different outside areas in At-lanta, in homes, and on the streets. I met a sister with Church of the Common Ground and started going all the time. I wasn’t raised in a religious atmosphere, but spiritually I have a God of my understanding.
I’ve been going to AA meetings for a year now, and I’m off the streets. I was estranged from my children. I saw my son on his birthday, May 8. To me, that was a miracle. I didn’t know what to say. I had to rehearse. A friend said to give it to God, and that’s what I did.
I have five brothers and three sisters I hadn’t seen since I was eight years old. Jobs used to ask next-of-kin, and I would put down “none.” My family was always street people.
Now, my family has gotten all connected. I talk to them over the phone and text them. I hope to see them one day before I go to heaven or hell, whichever.
Stacey Palmer, 43
As a transgender woman and part of the trans-gender community growing up in the 70s and early 80s, there wasn’t a lot of information. I kept telling people over and over, “I’m a girl,” but no one would believe me. There was a lot of confusion and anxiety on my part. That definitely affected my self-esteem. About the early 90s, the internet was available. I saw I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. I started to feel comfortable with myself.
One story that really changed me as a person and an educator was during my second year in education, when I worked in public schools in New Jersey and was playing basketball with this child who was eight or nine years old. He was from Ecuador. His father had been killed by a drug cartel. I had burned my thumb pretty badly cooking dinner the night before. He jumped up for the ball, and when he came down, he hit my hand. I was in a good deal of pain, and he asked whether I was OK. I told him I had burned my thumb. He said he knew how that felt. He pulled up his sleeve, and there were all these scars that looked like cigarette burns. That was when I knew I could really make a difference in these children’s lives, not just by teaching them numbers and words but by being a positive force in their lives.
As a trans woman, I’ve experienced a lot of difficulty in my self-confidence, especially when I was younger. I’m working for a school that’s very diverse. Not only does the school give me the opportunity to teach without any judgment, without any bias, but also it lets the students be who they want to be. Just my being present and visible is saying a lot more than words ever could.
Before I came out, when I was presenting as male, I never felt connected to my body. I felt like I was a passenger going through life. I never felt self-worth. Since I came out, I felt that. It was almost a spiritual awakening. If I had one wish for myself, it would be to go back in time and tell five-year-old me that everything’s going to be OK, to stay strong. That’s what I want these children to feel.
Percy Hardy, 67
I was born in Cartersville in Bartow County, moved to Floyd County when I was nine years old, completed high school and technical school and got a job in Atlanta.
I’m a person. I would consider myself a child of God. There are a lot of different ways to look at it. I try not to think of myself as being of any race, creed, or nationality. I’m just a man, a 67-year-old man.
For the last two years, I’ve been into politics on TV. That’s my entertainment. In most of my voting, I’m a Democrat. I’ve been voting for many years, and I’ve been of the Democratic persuasion. If somebody’s a Democrat, I feel comfortable discussing politics. If somebody is a Republican, they may feel like you’re criticizing them if you disagree, so I leave that alone.
Part of my history is mental health, but that doesn’t define who I am. My diagnosis is bipolar disorder. I’ve been living with that since I was a teenager. I don’t discuss that much. There’s a stigma with having a mental health diagnosis. Any time you have a mass killing now, it’s always tied to mental health, and that increases the stigma.
Jack Ceccato, 73
I was in the Army from 1968 through 1972. I did two tours in Vietnam. I was a platoon leader and saw lots of killing and nastiness. It didn’t jibe with my personality. I was forced to do some things I didn’t want to do, so I just put it away as if it were another person.
When I got back from Vietnam, I had PTSD brought on by combat, being placed in a situation that was nowhere near normal. I was very, very lucky. I had an acquaintance who became a really good friend. He’s an Episcopal priest who had been a chaplain in Vietnam. He did memorial services. He was medicating himself with alcohol; I was medicating myself with alcohol. We got together with a group of like individuals in 1987. It was one of the first, probably the first, group of Vietnam veterans in Columbus. The room we met in was round. That was good because everyone could have a wall. You’d never have your back exposed.
We’d been advised to “talk about it.” I hadn’t talk-ed about it in 15 years, even to my wife. It was all bottled up. I was fortunate. A little medication, a little talking to and I was OK, at least for the most part. I guess I’m still screwed up. If I hear a crash, I don’t run away. I run toward it.
After trying several other jobs and not being very good at them, I went back to what I was trained for: teaching English. I taught high school and college English for 33 years.
My favorite male poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins. He uses words so beautifully — the alliteration and imagery.
Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
My favorite female poet is Emily Dickinson.
She has some statements that gnaw at you.
Because I could not stop for Death — He kindly stopped for me —
Those are things I wish I could have written. Poetry lets me go inside myself — both reading it and writing it. It lets me pose questions to myself and makes me answer something I can appreciate and understand.
Jennifer Jones, 48
Reading has always been a passion of mine. Books have always been an integral part of my life. I think I get it from my mother. She reads all the time.
When I was a child, we had a trampoline. I re-member lying out on the trampoline and reading, especially in the summer. I’d read in bed until I fell asleep. I loved Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Now, I read on my lunch hour. At home, if I’m in the kitchen cooking and have a little downtime, I pick up a book. I lie on the couch and read. I always have my Kindle or a book with me. I like audiobooks, but that can seem like cheating.
I like to read everything — Stephen King, John Irving, Harold Kushner, Karen Armstrong, Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor. I read some biographies. Some of it is escapism, but mostly I think it’s that I like to know what makes people tick, why people are the way they are. I like learning about people’s lives. I think it makes you more empathetic. It makes you understand people better.
I worked at a public library for 10 years and left for a job in IT at a utility company. I really missed working with books. A few months ago, I got the opportunity to be the church librarian at St. Paul’s. I took the library online, and I started creating reading lists on different subjects. We are a theological library, but we also try to have things that people will just enjoy. We just got a big donation of cookbooks. I think it will be fun to work with those.
In 2006, reading brought me to the decision to be an Episcopalian. For various reasons, I had left my church. I was on this journey when I read Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. She was an Orthodox Jew who went on a journey and became an Episcopal priest. That book led me to the Episcopal Church.
Sytha Lee Mckinley, 48
I made a book, a singing book. I ain’t finished it yet. I do songbooks and stained glass. I do art on canvas. I paint buildings and events I’ve been to. I paint birds and babies of birds, which are eggs in nests. I like birds. I like the way they rock back and forth and the way they communicate. I like lions, too, but I can’t have a lion. If I was born again, I’d like to be a bird.
Family is very important. I have my mom. My dad passed away. I have a sister that lives in Lithonia and a brother that lives in Kennesaw. I’m pretty much on my own. I live in a group home.
I write songs about Jesus, songs about love, songs about marriage. My favorite one is about Jesus. I don’t know what the melody sounds like. When the words come to me, I just write them down. I always ask God to speak through me, to use me. I try not to hurt nobody. When people get on my nerves, I just laugh at them.
Here’s my favorite song:
God let me be Hole
God let me be Hole
For your better work
All the good word
You are so good
You are all good
You are the Lord we know
God let me Be Hole
God let me be Hole
God, God, God, God.
Elizabeth Dutch, 18
First and foremost I would define myself to anyone who asks as a performer. I’ve been singing since I was in fourth grade, and I started doing musicals in sixth grade. I’m pursuing musical theater as a degree so that I can perform for the rest of my life. It’s who I am as an individual.
One of my favorite parts of performing is being able to relate to people I would not have an opportunity to know otherwise. I played a character named Percy Talbott in a high school production of The Spitfire Grill. She had had a rough home life. She came from a very poor family and was sent to prison for killing her stepfather after he raped her. She became pregnant but lost the child. But she finds love and support in a new community after she’s released from prison; she learns how community can shape you and help you grow and ultimately finds love and forgiveness for herself. I was really unsure how I could play that role because her background was so different from mine. But I like that, as a performer, I have the ability to step into someone else’s shoes on stage, and that helps me in real life to relate to people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives.
Another role that was very meaningful for me was Emma, Dr. Jekyll’s fiancee in Jekyll and Hyde, the musical. Throughout the story she figures out who Henry Jekyll is and who he’s becoming. Emma was such a selfless character. She gave everything to him and cared for him even when he wasn’t reciprocating. She forgave him over and over. That was an example of how I want to treat other people — to be someone who can overlook flaws and forgive when people make mistakes. I think that’s important.
After college I would like to perform in national tours and then to go back to college. I’d like to direct and teach theater in high school or college.
When I was in high school, we had an adaptive class. Basically, it was theater fundamentals for people with physical or developmental disabilities. I was able to work some with the class. I learned how the communication skills and confidence you learn through theater helped those students. Ultimately, I would like to form a full theater company for people with disabilities.
Elliot Watts, 31
I was born in Atlanta and raised in Fayetteville. I went to Fayette County High School and after that to Yale for undergraduate. I majored in history then soon after went to Columbia in New York for law school. [Now] I’m a lawyer with Alston & Bird in financial services and products.
My parents were proud of being black and raised my sister and me to be proud. They moved to Fayette County for the good schools, and going to schools that were majority white helped make me who I am. I learned I could love everybody.
I love music and sang in choirs in elementary and high school and an a cappella group in college. I think God called us to make a joyful noise. I really feel that especially singing in groups. There’s a really powerful connection that happens when you sing together. I was in the Whiffinpoofs my senior year in college. Among the 14 students, there were black, white, Jewish, Asian, gay, straight, wealthy, and lower and middle class. We were able to connect with our audiences and with each other through singing. There’s something transcendent about harmonizing.
I learned my family has a long history with the Episcopal Church. Henry Beard Delany, the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church, was my great-great-great-grandfather’s brother on my mother’s side.
My wife, Jacquie, and I got married at St. Luke’s on June 16. The wedding service speaks for itself. It’s a covenant between you, the other person, and God. God’s role is something we’re learning about, how to lean on him and not put everything on us. It’s so enriching to learn from Jacquie daily. Everything’s not easy, but it’s such a worthwhile partnership. God moves through Jacquie and me as a unit.
Bonnie Lamberth, 83
Who am I? At 83, it is a long story. Born a Texan, baptized a Presbyterian, in a family that moved frequently, I have often thought of my kinship to Abraham and Sarah. From early days in the Cradle Roll Class, the church has been my home, a gift of love, my stability. Educated by the Presbyterians at Austin College to be a musician and teacher, I married a minister, became a mother of a daughter and two sons, a church musician, and a Christian educator. From Texas to North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, we moved and made dear friends through minis tries rich in music and worship. Widowhood and retirement led me to Atlanta, choices and changes, new dear friends, and the Cathedral of St. Philip. I found there a warm welcome, a place of diversity and acceptance unlike any church I had known before. Liturgy and music, weekly communion, the Book of Common Prayer, scripture read and preached with grace and inclusiveness, and the commitment to service — all support my faith. I feel as if I have come home at last. Four grandchildren, EFM, study, and practice of spirituality in new ways have enriched my life; a passion for gardening, reading and study, travel, and family light up my days. Thanks be to God for this time, people, and place so full of blessing.
Arthur Padron, 60
I’m a regular Joe, a regular Joe trying to be a better Christian. We grew up near the border in Mexico. We grew up in both countries right there on the border. Around 2000, I came over to work. The following year, I brought my wife. I‘m in construction. I build hotels. Have you seen all those cranes downtown? I manage projects. I have one child in San Antonio, and we have three here. Every time we had a celebration, like a sweet 16 or baptism, we would come over here to St. Bede’s. We are basically regulars now. We have to drive about an hour and a half to get here. She wants to move closer. I like it where we are because we’re out there in the country. I like the outdoors. There seems to be a green light now for people who hate us. If they hated us, they used to hold back. Now, if they hate us, they do something about it. Every month, we bail people out of jail just for trying to get to work.
Liz Schellingerhoudt, 57
I consider my first ordination as baptism — bap-tism into God’s family. I was raised to believe I’m a beloved child of God. That’s one of the best gifts you can give your child.
My parents always treated everyone that way. They were very involved in civil rights. We always had people with all kinds of different backgrounds at our house. I think all of us get our identity from the way we were raised, and that’s an important part of my identity. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to have relationships with children, no matter what our calling is in the rest of our lives. As we respect the dignity of every human being, we live out our baptismal vows.
My husband and I love being in the mountains. We moved here from Atlanta and haven’t looked back. We’re enjoying this season of our lives.
One way I renew myself is to make pottery on a wheel. It feels so good in your hands. It’s very tactile. It’s something you have to put your full energy into — your mind and your body and your creativity. You start with a lump. You may have an idea of how you want to go, but if you work it too much, it’s going to fall apart. If you do a little bit of listening to the clay, you’re going to have to adjust what you started out with. It’s not going to be exactly what you had in mind.
Often, if I’m disappointed in something, if I put it away for six months, I can pull it out, and I can look at it again and say, “I really like that.” I can forget that I had decided at the time what I wanted it to be, and I can let go of that.
That’s a metaphor for life. You set your plans, but then you have to adjust and adapt. A lot of times the way things turn out is better than you could have imagined.