There is something incredibly off-putting about bald-faced claims that unapologetically attempt to make sense of our place in the world. Some of these statements, however, are emotionally resonant enough to deserve no protracted rebuttal. These are the kind of statements that we naturally recourse to in hard times—nice little cushions of affirmation, making the fall all the lighter, letting us feel all the better.
One such claim is that any individual is more than the quality and output of their production. We remind ourselves by reminding others that we are not our schoolwork, not our career prospects, not any variant of result-driven definers. We point towards something intrinsically embedded within ourselves, a self-worth that transcends the opinions of others. Our identity becomes grounded in the specialness of our existence, in the assortment of identity markers that make me me.
Nevertheless, the same mechanism underlies the search for our authentic self and the dogged pursuit of success: Namely, the need to define ourselves through specific, convenient methods that reassure us that we’re properly relating to the world. We turn to schoolwork, friendships, relationships, our interior life, even our faith—maybe in that order, maybe in another—falling from trapdoor through trapdoor, hoping to land in the compartment that best expresses who we are.
I have identified as an evangelical Christian since I was eight years old. I tagged along with my parents to a Baptist church, and I kept tagging along, even after I transitioned away from home and childhood. I believed that this faith would be my help in ever-present trouble—trouble keenly accentuated when I flailed and failed in every major aspect of life, not in some epic fashion, but in the small, frustrating ways common to all of us. Yet, the immovable, unconquerable parts of my soul—my self-confidence, my closest friendships, my introspection—eluded me just as stubbornly as everything else.
I know, of course, that I’m not really a terrible student, or a terrible friend, or really that bad of a person. I know, too, that I could keep splashing myself with a dose of so-called realism, accepting this so-called human condition, this feeling that there’ll always be something crawling under your skin, some deeper fabric of yourself that you’ll never fully understand.
And yet, I find it impossible to reconcile this mode of thinking, compelling me to accept the insufficiency of my existence as defined by what I do and who I am, with the reassurance than I am more than the things I do. Because, then, your preferred method of work—spiritually, scholarly, relationally, whichever one best expresses who you know yourself to be—becomes the only possible thing that can define you, the electrical rail-line that keeps you grounded and moving. You have no choice but to be the best self that you know, even when that self rings painfully hollow.
This is especially true of many people who ascribe to Christianity and other religious systems. There’s a certain comportment that believers are meant to embody, one in which faith imbues every action with life-affirming meaning. Too often, however, this becomes one more way to measure ourselves, a twisted test of how pious and devout and “deep” we can be. By these standards, I was, and remain, far from the grace of God.
But faith isn’t meant to lead you towards self-sufficiency. Rather, it’s meant to illuminate this very gap—between what you should be or want to be, and what your current circumstances say about you. Faith takes that introspection, that self-doubt, and casts it outwards, reminding you, in the process, that your worth is measured, not in how you want to define yourself, but in how God views you, as His creature and His child. Realizing that you’re a bad person might be hard; realizing that you’re more than that is infinitely harder.
It might seem like I’ve circled back to another sweeping generalization about living a good life—and a highly divisive one at that. You could choose to logically dismiss everything I’ve said, claiming that I’m projecting my experiences and insecurities onto a swath of people with different lives, different perspectives, different goals. And, in a sense, you would be right—because, if you’re looking for someone who can envision a world without an Almighty, someone who can answer your epistemological and cosmological questions, someone who has complete confidence in what he believes, who never struggles with doubt, who is certain that his belief is more than vestiges of beautiful childhood memories, I am not that person.
What I am is a hurt kid, unable to spar intellectually with arguments against the existence of God, impaired by depression and self-image issues, unaccomplished in the eyes of Harvard, sometimes a decent friend, more often than not a bad one, and all too willing to launch myself down spirals of self-loathing in order to get someone to pay attention to me.
But, despite this knowledge of myself, of these elements that make me me, I know, as hard as it may be to believe, that the love God has for me renders me more than the sum of my parts. And if you know, maybe irrationally, maybe emotionally, that you have to be more than what you produce, then I hope that you’ll see that this is more than another controversial proclamation of faith, more than another way to a better me, more than another coping mechanism for loneliness and meaninglessness.
Friendships matter. Schoolwork matters. The things we want to accomplish—the families we’ll raise, the careers we’ll pursue, the people we’ll help—matter too. But, regardless of whether my life goes according to plan or ends up in shambles, the final result will never define my worth as a person. If I am more than my circumstances, my grades, my emotional status, my interior life, my relationships, then I am more than the best self I could possibly imagine, more than the places I’ll go, more than my wildest dreams and aspirations.
This doesn’t make the daily grind any easier. But I can rest sure in knowing that, although a good life may be hard to find, my own frenzied attempts at doing so won’t come to define me.
Al Fernández '17 is an English concentrator living in Eliot House, and a member of Harvard College Faith and Action.
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