When we strip away the external markers of identity, what is quantifiable, what is left?
A woman in a coma was dying. She suddenly had a feeling that she was taken up to heaven and stood before the Judgement Seat.
Who are you?" a voice said to her.
"I'm the wife of the mayor," she replied.
"I didn't ask you whose wife you are but who you are."
"I'm the mother of four children."
"I did not ask whose mother you are, but who you are."
"I'm a schoolteacher."
"I did not ask you what your profession is but who you are."
And so it went. No matter what she replied, she did not seem to give a satisfactory answer to the question, "Who are you?"
"I'm a Christian."
"I did not ask you what your religion is but who you are."
"I'm the one who went to church every day and always helped the poor and needy."
"I did not ask you what you did but who you are."
She evidently failed the examination for she was sent back to earth. When she recovered from her illness she determined to find out who she was. And that made all the difference.
(From Anthony de Mello, The Prayer of the Frog, vol 1, pp. 191-192.)
When we are stripped of our external identities we struggle to answer the question of who we are. The irony here is that what is 'inside', the centre, is more important than any of these externals, yet we struggle to know this centre. And even more ironically, when someone loses one of these externals (e.g. employment) we notice, but we hardly notice if someone has lost their soul.
This inner life is the realm of faith, religion, and God. The externals are too, of course, but in the same way 'having' and 'doing' is related to 'being'. There is something more pivotal in 'being' and not just 'doing', about who we are rather than justifying ourselves through quantifiable external markers. The quantifiable, external markers are not bad in themselves. But the pursuit of them as proxies of the true self lets us down. In relation to the development and sense of self these external markers are more like scaffolding around the real person each of us is. climbing them does give us a sense of height, and of the proportion of the self, but at some point we have to jump off the scaffolding and grab hold. Done rightly, some of those externals can lead us to the point where we can jump off into space and land on the other side. Jesus is deeply suspicious of the external markers, or should I say, how we use them and use them against others. Those who don't have the right markers, in the right quantity, are excluded or persecuted.
If we are looking for the true self we will find it in our search for God. Jesus' sense of self was not a self-enclosed confidence grounded in himself. It was entirely grounded in his relation to the the one he called 'Father'. It is a striking feature of the Gospels that Jesus' prime relationship is with God without excluding relationship with others, but the latter do not serve as quantifiable markers to make himself feel OK or attack others.