It’s now been 3 ½ years since my accident, and as time marches on, I’ve been trying to make sense of my new identity. My son’s girlfriend, Kate, has only ever known me in my chair. To her, and to everyone I meet from here on in, I can only ever be an old man in a wheelchair. Jeremy was 16, and Jacob 13, but at the time of the accident Lachlan was 10. When he emerges into adulthood, what memories will inform the image he has of his father?
This begs the question of what is meant by identity. In previous generations, identity was a familial and communal concept – we understood ourselves (and were understood by others) as being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – and members of a tribe, a province, a kingdom, a religion. This was sometimes oppressive, as individuals were trapped and controlled by their genealogies. But if modernity has meant freedom from such control, it has also left us bereft of the meanings and values that direct our life. In the place of family, we have come to understand ourselves by what we do. When we meet someone, we don’t care about their last name or ask about their parents but, rather, we want to know what they do for a living, for a sport, for entertainment.
In my mind, then, I’ve been a Christian scholar/surfer – and I have always been proud of the juxtaposition. What we expect of an academic, especially one who teaches (boring and abstract) theology, is a tweed jacket, confused fashion sense (sadly true of me), and someone who prefers chess to sport (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Being the egoist that I am, I’ve always loved the fact surfing shattered that expectation; so sport was central to my self-understanding (as it is to my parents and brothers). More than that, my identity as father and husband was also informed by my physicality in performing these roles. While I was never a successful handyman, I was at least a “lover and a fighter” – by which I mean to say my manhood could not be divorced from my strength. I was Elly’s “muscle”, and my boys partner in adventure (a fact that ultimately proved my own undoing).
So who am I without these things?
Actually, I’m not without these things. As Phil Smith notes, “we create stories in order to understand who we are, and what we are, and how we are, in the world (P. Smith 2013, 5).” Narrative informs personal identity by expressing our perceptions of the past and present, and capturing our hopes, fears, and vision for the future. So in telling my story, I’m reminding myself of who I am, not so that I can get depressed about a lost self, but so that I can take control of today, and make tomorrow meaningful.
Kate (and maybe Lachlan) will know little of the scholar/surfer, but I can still be more than just an old man in a chair. Of course I am that, but that’s not who I am. Make sense of that if you can.