Here’s an exercise: Think of someone, anyone.
More than likely, you recalled an image of them in your mind. Though the first thing we recall is a visual, that’s not who they are. You can’t glance someone and know them, because they’re so much more than what’s on the surface.
I loved how Charlotte Brontë said it in Jane Eyre:
“What ever I do with its cage, I cannot get at it—the savage, beautiful creature! If I tear, if I rend the slight prison, my outrage will only let the captive loose. Conqueror I might be of the house; but the inmate would escape to heaven before I could call myself possessor of its clay dwelling-place. And it is you, spirit—with will and energy, and purity and virtue—that I want: not alone your brittle frame.”
So if you’re physical features don’t define you, then what does? A friend of mine recently asked me: If your parents had married someone else, would you exist? Do your parents define you? Your genetics? If you look at Twitter, you see people describing themselves with their profession, age, or interests. If you look at about pages, you’ll see people describe themselves with their quirks, personality, or qualifications. Are you one of these things? Some of these? An accumulation of these? To discover who we are, let’s first look at two things that don’t define us.
There were two young men, brothers. Their father had been a severe alcoholic. One man was also a severe alcoholic. When asked why, he said, “Because my father was an alcoholic. Why wouldn’t I be?”
The second man had never touched alcohol. When asked why, he said, “Because my father was an alcoholic. Why would I be?”
Our circumstances—both the environment and family we were born into—don’t define us. You can find stories of people from rich families losing their wealth. You can find stories of homeless people becoming millionaires.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
I find this fact empowering. You can’t change yesterday. You can’t control what will happen tomorrow. But you can always control how you react.
Though habits hit closer to the target than circumstances, we can’t evaluate people simply from their habits either. People make mistakes and fall into habits they shouldn’t. This isn’t to excuse them from developing bad habits, since you can always change. What matters more than the habits themselves is what we do with those habits, what habits we start, what habits we stop.
I’m walking a very fine line here, since I think habits are important—very, very important, and I think actions also help determine who a person is, but there’s something deeper we have to examine, something that comes before our actions:
If an action is a fruit, the thought—the choice—is the seed. In fact, the source of the action is more important than the action itself. For example, two people could make a large donation to a charity. One does it for the praise and publicity. One does it anonymously to help others. And, of course, we recognize this in the legal system—the penalty for murder is much more severe than the penalty for manslaughter. Motive matters.
It’s the little, everyday decisions that define us.
It’s those ten seconds where you run longer on the treadmill than you have to—or when you cut your work out ten seconds short. It’s getting to bed early or staying up late. It’s what you eat, how you care for yourself, whether or not you decide to have just one more cookie. Each of those little actions are bricks that build the structure of who we are.
At this point, I hope I’m not confusing you. Though I’m putting a lot of emphasis on actions, that’s only because actions are the results of our choices. Actions are the external proof of an internal belief, which is why faith without works is dead.
If you want to change who you are, don’t just change your actions—change your choices.
Once again, God leaves a tremendous amount of responsibility in our hands. Just as we define our own success, we’re allowed to define who we are—and Whose we are.
Who are you? Who do you want to be? And what choices can you make to get there?