What’s your ID? A rectangle of plastic with your photo and information on it? What does it say – a student, driver, or another occupation? The ID I’m talking about is a little more than that. It’s what you identify with at a core level. Things like being a son, sister, friend. Like being “the brains”, “the funny one” or “the athlete”. It’s what you let define you.
What is a mask? In recent times, it’s a face covering worn to prevent germs getting out. Again, not quite the one I’m thinking about. On a deeper level, it’s an unseen filter that we let information pass through and also use to project the self-identified version of ourselves that we want others to see. Except my mask didn’t keep germs out. It kept people and light from getting in. It was a self-enforced form of social distancing if you like. Why am I talking about these two things? Well, they relate to my story about my identity and the masks I was wearing.
At school I was bullied to the point where I got home-schooled to try and escape it. Those memories made me afraid to show people who I was because I didn’t want to get teased and I just wanted to have some friends. For a while I only had the year 8 teacher to talk to. I became someone who told jokes, couldn’t say no to things and tried really hard to please people so that they would want to be my friend.
My identity controlled the mask I wore. I was a lonely guy desperately wanting to make friends, who needed to win them by trying to appear as funny, cool, quirky and as interesting as possible. Winning friends, not making them. This continued well into my Uni years. I’m a proud person by nature, and I certainly took a lot of pride in having those labels. A lot of my peers only saw and knew the veneer. While I thought I had their admiration, many probably saw me as a shallow, try-hard, comedic egg. This attitude permeated every corner of myself. I had a photo of another person on my Facebook profile because I didn’t want to put my own face on there. I didn’t even have my name either. ‘Rogernomics’ quickly became a bit of a joke at Otago. He was the public face of my mask, a front that was far away from the person behind the mask. Everything officially approved as the ‘best’ version of myself I had to show.
“A lot of my peers only saw and knew the veneer. While I thought I had their admiration, many probably saw me as a shallow, try-hard, comedic egg.”
While external appearances were kept up, inside me was another story. From my primary school years onwards on I liked to hide information other people could access about myself, things like photographs, videos, and my birthday date. I thought that if I didn’t tell anyone when it was my birthday, then those who really cared about me would remember it and celebrate it with me instead of just acting nice in the lead up to it only to ignore you the next day. But it turns out when you don’t share that information with your friends, it’s unrealistic to expect them to know or remember when the day comes around.
I love my family – don’t get me wrong, but the novelty of having multiple birthdays with just them at the table wore off after a few years. The preconceptions I had about how cool it would be having an ultra-low key birthday were painfully shattered when the whole day went by and no one remembered it. Somehow, the cake doesn’t taste as sweet even though there’s more of it to hog. The presents don’t unwrap as fun when you find your family’s gift stashes by accident and know what you’re getting. The conversations quickly run dry when the weather becomes the conversation topic because there’s only 4 or 5 people there. Ouch. Seriously Patrick, why on earth would you do this to yourself?
This happened because I had let my identity be shaped by what I thought others thought of me. Problem is that other people aren’t always reliable. They change, they move away, and letting them define your identity is tiring; it sets yourself up for hurt and rejection time and time again. Even though I knew that this wasn’t fulfilling and it felt tiring living a lie, I still continued it. There seemed no way out, no hope.
Looking left, I could see the path I had been walking down for years. For the first time it started to look old, boring, and unappealing. Instead of trudging down this well-worn path, for the first time in my life it seemed like a new path was opened in the opposite direction. This path was fresh, interesting and exciting. I wanted to go down that path. But how could I when I had been walking the other one for so long?
If I did, it would mean taking on a whole new identity and taking off the mask I’d worn for so long. It would mean giving less value to what people thought of me. It would mean I could be and bring my real self to the world. I wanted that and I went for it. If people didn’t like what they saw, so be it. I figured it was better to have a few genuine friends than many that don’t like who I really am. I suspect that a few of you are in the same boat as I was. My friends, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Letting yourself be defined by others’ opinions of you doesn’t have to be the default. For me, my transformation came with changing who I let define me. Instead of other people having the last word, God invited me to let him define me as his child. He promises to never let us down, to love us as we are and to be our best friend. If our hearts are a home, he’s knocking on the door for those who haven’t let him in yet. He’s the Father waiting to call you his child. His arms are wide open for you. There is hope for what’s left of your life.
I challenge you to consider what masks you are wearing. Are you satisfied with them, or have you had enough?
Are you ready to take a risk and trust God to provide friends or help you change ingrained habits that just aren’t working for you anymore?
I’d also like you to ponder who or what you let define you or give you your sense of worth. If it’s not God, then why not take a step of faith and take on the identity he offers you? You can discover more about what a relationship with him is like here.
Patrick Coughlan is in his fourth year studying land surveying at Otago University. He loves getting out on his road bike, playing cricket, and getting into the Central Otago outdoors when he’s not busy studying!