Youth Conference 2004
Identity and Intimacy
About 7 times a minute in Australia, as well as in the US a great miracle occurs, a child is born. From the moment of his birth each child begins to be shaped by his interaction with the world around him. At the very beginning, the child knows nothing of the world around him and he begins to figure out what the nature of this world is. As time progresses, the child develops different skills and abilities and with each new developmental stage, the child’s interaction with his environment takes on new aspects and potentialities. This process of development has been described in a multitude of ways by various psychologists who attempt to discover how it is that the personality is formed. This study of personality development is useful to us in the Orthodox Church not because it reveals to us the secrets of the soul’s formation - we have known that from the beginning by the experience of the saints - but because useful structures may sometimes emerge that help us to organize what we know and to talk about it in useful ways. (We do this with all kinds of knowledge, taking a “structure” from the secular sciences or some other discipline without embracing the philosophical or theological content and filling that empty structure with the teaching of the Church - we use Roman Catholic terms to talk about the “sacraments” but we do not embrace Roman Catholic sacramental theology; we use evolutionary terms and structures to talk about the different species and types of animals and certain biological processes, but we do not embrace the assumptions of evolutionary theory as truth). Today we will take the structure of a theory of personality development devised by a psychologist named Erik Erikson but we will use this structure to talk about our Christian life.
Erikson noticed that as the child develops certain physical, mental and emotional abilities, he also reacts to his environment in unique ways, developing certain key qualities of his personality. Unlike his predecessor, Sigmund Freud, Erikson also noticed that development does not stop with the end of childhood, but continues on throughout the life of the person. Erikson was able to describe 8 stages of life, each one with its own conflict and “task” and final quality which needed to be developed. He also noted that in order to develop a particular quality, the previous stage must have been completed, otherwise the person would not have the appropriate tools to work on developing this new quality. Most of you are in the stage of either “adolescence” or “young adulthood” and so we will focus the majority of our time and attention on those stages and their appropriate qualities, identity an intimacy. However to put it all in context, let me briefly review the whole process.
Stage 1 : 0-2 : Infancy : Trust vs Mistrust : Hope or Withdrawal
Stage 2 : 2-3 : Early Childhood : Autonomy vs Shame/Doubt : Will or Compulsion
Stage 3 : 3-5 : Play Age : Initiative vs Guilt : Purpose or Inhibition
Stage 4 : 6-12 : School Age : Industry vs Inferiority : Competence or Inertia
Stage 5 : 12-18 : Adolescence : Identity vs Identity Confusion : Fidelity or Repudiation
Stage 6 : 19-35 : Young Adulthood : Intimacy vs Isolation : Love or Exclusivity
Stage 7 : 35-65 : Adulthood : Generativity vs Stagnation : Care or Rejectivity
Stage 8 : 65+ : Old Age : Integrity vs Despair : Wisdom or Disdain
Notice that the early stages 1-4 are more focused on the world or environment in general and the personal functioning of the child. The later stages 5-8 are more focused on relationships with others. During the early years, a child takes his identity, his core self awareness and self definition from his elders, usually his parents. He defines himself in terms of their identity and his relationship to them. At adolescence begins the development of an independent identity - the person defining himself in terms of who he is apart from his parents and others. This is an extremely critical stage in the process, probably the most critical in the whole life of a person, and as such it has received the most attention, both in terms of intensity and sheer volume. This is also where we are going to focus our attention because most of you are right in the middle of the identity stage. We will also look forward some to the next stage, the intimacy stage, because some of you are already there and for others, its the next thing on the horizon.
These stages are important not only because they shape and define who you are and how you relate to the world around you - but even more importantly they shape and define your relationship with God.
During the school age years, the child learns the value of industry and develops a sense of competence in being able to take on a task and complete it. I recall when my children were in middle school, their biggest difficulties were not with being able to do things, but simply with having the confidence that they could. It took no time at all for them to learn how to do something or to figure out the solution to a problem - the difficulty was all in believing that they could actually do what they set out to do. Once someone convinced them to try, they were successful at whatever they set their minds and talents to. After a time they began to realize their competence and could undertake independently anything that they encountered. Having developed a sense of competence, it is time for the person to focus their efforts on one of the most important puzzles they will ever face - who am I?
The identity of a person is rooted in their childhood, it is the integration of all the various childhood identities. These identities come from a variety of places. First is the set of family roles and expectations. From the day you were first a gleam in your parent’s eyes, they had dreams about who you would be and what you would become. Parents want their children to be successful and happy and so develop goals about how their child might do that. These expectations are usually shaped by the parents interests and abilities. Fathers want their sons to follow in their footsteps and take up a similar occupation - or alternatively to take up the occupation they wish they had taken up. Mothers want their daughters to be married to a wonderful just like the one she married, or the one she wished she’d married. Athletic parents might encourage their children into sports, artistic parents might encourage their children in cultural pursuits, musical parents encourage music, religious parents encourage piety and so on. There are also the assumed or standard family roles that a child is expected to grow into. An older child is expected to be more responsible and competent than his younger siblings and to be their care taker. A boy is expected to fulfill “male” roles and engage in “male” activities and a girl the “female” roles and “female” activities. These are the first kinds of childhood “identities” that a child encounters.
Another source of childhood identities is fantasy. Children are really good at imagining and make believe. Through fantasy and play a child gets to experiment with all kinds of identities without incurring the responsibilities and expectations of seriously pursuing a particular career. Therefore a child can be a soldier, a cowboy, a cop or robber, a mother or father, an animal, a famous person, a knight or king, a damsel in distress, a mermaid, and so on. A child will also fantasize and play at identities which reflect his own personal abilities, aptitudes and interests (if he likes something or is good at it he will think about doing it). All of these fantastic “identities” become a part of the process of developing one’s own identity.
My daughter, when she was young, developed a fascination with dolphins. Now we lived far inland and rarely if ever made it to the ocean and when we did, whales and dolphins weren’t hanging around the beach to play with, but she came up with the idea that she wanted to be a dolphin trainer. She held on to that “identity” and as time progressed she incorporated that into her mature identity and took her degree in biology with an emphasis on marine mammal behavior and is pursuing graduate studies in animal behavior and a career in training animals. She took one of her “childhood identities” and integrated it into who she is today. Not all childhood identities are absorbed so purely into adulthood. When I was a child, I thought that I might like to be an engineer. My aptitude and love for understanding and devising an underlying system was applied however, not to engineering, but to understanding how people and relationships work as I pursued psychology as a career.
The process of integrating all these childhood identities into a single comprehensive unique mature adult identity necessitates finding a connection between them all. These are connected both internally and externally. Within the self, it is necessary to sort through all of these identities, take what is useful or desirable, discard the rest and somehow knit together an idea of who you want to be. Externally, this idea of who you want to be needs to be tested against the world to see how “practical” it is and whether it is a real option. This means that an adolescent is going to be “experimenting” in the real world with alternative identities. This experimentation might among other things take the form of studying different things, trying new experiences or even taking on an “artificial” persona for a time being. All this internal confusion necessitates finding some structure to provide a certain security. The process of identity requires and seeks out external conformity to help control and shape the internal turmoil and confusion. That external conformity and structure usually takes the form of a “clique” or peer group where there is an atmosphere of external “sameness” and conformity which by its very nature allows the inner person to tolerate some chaos in identity. It’s as if you have a “disposable” external identity to which you are not permanently committed so that internally you can experiment with different realities in emotional safety. In plain language, you might be a jock, or a geek or a freak or a deb or a goth or something like that. All this is only temporary, it is an external structure that allows you the internal chaos and the freedom to figure out who you really are.
Your true internal identity has the quality of consistency and fidelity - that is you are able to sustain your values and beliefs and the loyalties you freely pledge in spite of the inevitable conflicts of value systems that will arise. In the end, you have to decide who you are, and who you will become and by committing yourself to that, you are the one responsible to bring it about. St Theophan the Recluse says of this process: “A man becomes entirely human when he comes to self-awareness and independence of mind, when he becomes the complete master and commander of his own ideas and deeds and holds certain ideas not because others have given these to him, but because he himself finds them to be true.”
This is the point in your life where you who were raised in the Church, baptized at birth and who always just assumed your parents faith for your own now have to make that faith your own. You must make a choice, you must exercise the free will that God has given you and decide now for yourself, will you follow Christ. St Theophan writes: “There must be a special moment when one must intentionally renew in one’s awareness all the obligations of Christianity and place upon oneself their yoke as an unfailing law” This is exactly what the process of “identity” is all about. Defining yourself as an Orthodox Christian - not because your parents are Orthodox Christians, or because you grew up in the Orthodox Church or because you are of Russian heritage, but because you have chosen to embrace Christ freely and of your own volition. St Theophan goes on: “In Baptism (the Christian faith) was accepted without awareness ... but now one must consciously place upon oneself the good yoke of Christ, choose the life of Christianity, and exclusively dedicate oneself to God, so that later, all the days of one’s life one might serve Him with enthusiasm. Here only does a man himself begin the Christian life.” If the development of one’s identity is the most pivotal task in life, then the choice to put on Christ - to be a Christian - is the most pivotal and critical aspect of that task. Many times I have had a young person come and confess to me about the difficulty that they have living the Christian life and immediately it is obvious that this difficulty is not born from any lack of ability or strength, but it is a lack of will - because they have reached the point where they must decide for themselves that they will be a Christian, that they will follow Christ.
St Theophan recognizes this pivotal moment and describes it thus: “(The Christian life) existed in (the person) previously, ..but one may say it proceeded not from his own activity nor from his own person. Now he himself, in his own person, begins to act in the spirit of a Christian. Before this, the light of Christ which was in him like the light of the first day (of creation), which came not from one central source, but was diffused. But just as centers had to be provided for the light, drawing it to the suns and planets, so also this spiritual light must be gathered together around the central point of our life - our consciousness.” (by this he means our identity).
As I alluded to earlier, there is a time when the Christian life becomes difficult for a young person not from lack of strength or ability, but rather from the lack of will. This is because the anchor of the will is being transferred from the external values and beliefs of parents and godparents which guided it previously to the forming sense of self identity which will be its guide from this time on. St Theophan again enlightens us: “Only here (when one has put on himself the yoke of Christ) does one’s personal faith, or one’s good life according to faith, become firm and unshakable. One will not be scandalized by a bad example, will not be attracted by empty thoughts, because he is clearly conscious of the obligation of thinking and acting already in a definite way.” In other words, once a person makes a commitment to be a Christian, he has a definite way of life that he can follow with confidence.
The great danger at this stage in one’s life is that rather than developing a firm identity, the identity will remain in chaos and confusion. Having cast off the anchor of the childhood identity, the will is left without a new anchor of self awareness and a firm belief and way of life. as a result, “a bad example can dispose him to do what is bad, can draw him to sin. And...evil thoughts take possession of him” He will have no anchor and will become the slave of every wind of passion and desire that comes by, changing day by day as the world around him changes. The thirst for impressions and sensations, which is natural to youth, will pull the unanchored person this way and that as each new sensation or desire comes along. He will seek only the sensation and eventually lose the caution and judgment which protects him from danger and self destruction. As a result, the unanchored youth will enter into more and more dangerous and risky situations until finally, in the pursuit of one more sensation, one more “rush”, one more “good time” he loses himself. St Theophan likens the passage from childhood to adulthood to a waterfall in the middle of a river. The water above all flows together in a cohesive path, but then it falls from the edge it foams and swirls below. But then it quiets and goes its way. The danger here is that one does not move on but remains in the turmoil at the bottom of the waterfall, constantly swirled around, pounded against the rocks, caught in the eddies and swirls and in the end is trapped in a pool that goes nowhere or it is lost completely in the evaporation of this mist. Only a firm and durable identity as a Christian will permit a safe passage through the waterfall, continuing on in main course of the riverbed on the path of salvation.
Once the conscious decision to be a Christian is made, then one can move on to the other tasks of adulthood and maturity. St Theophan tells us: “Let him who has become conscious of himself as a Christian, or has consciously decided to live in a Christian way, himself now preserve with all care the perfection and purity of life which he has received at a younger age, just as others have preserved this life before him. There is no need to offer special rules as a guide for him.” At this point I would like to recognize that last year those of you who were here at this conference heard a wonderful talk by Fr Andrew Phillips entitled “Who Am I?” In his talk, Fr Andrew proposed two related questions “Where do I come from?” and “Where am I going?” from which one can gain some direction. I strongly suggest that you look again at his talk and the considerations that he raised for they are very good. (for those who didn’t hear the talk or who have forgotten what Fr Andrew said, the text is available on his “Orthodox England” website)
Having established a stable identity, the person is ready to proceed to the next task, that of intimacy. Before we go into the process of intimacy, it is important to understand what intimacy is - and what it is not. Intimacy is essentially a sharing of oneself, it is a union and communion with someone else. Instead of asking “Who am I?” the question now becomes “Who are we?” Intimacy involves giving of yourself to another person and receiving what they give to you, integrating the two separate selves into a new and unique wholeness. From this definition you can begin to understand why it is necessary to have established an identity before you embark on intimacy. Before you can give of yourself to another person, you have to have a “you” to give. Without this identity upon which to draw, there is nothing to give and instead of a genuine intimacy, you create and live in a deception, an illusion of intimacy.
There is, in the prevailing western society and culture, a tendency to confuse intimacy with intimate behavior. When a person has no capacity for intimacy, one attempt to create that intimacy is to confuse acting as if you were intimate with genuine intimacy. Intimate behavior must flow from an intimate relationship - it does not create intimacy where none exists. The most frequent manifestation of this confusion is premarital sexual relations. In desiring some kind of intimacy, intimate behavior is substituted and two young people fall into sin. This pseudo-intimacy may give the impression of real intimacy for a brief period, but all too soon that impression gives way to confusion, isolation, resentment and a greater separation than ever before. There is also a “flip side” to this phenomenon. Once intimacy and intimate behavior are confused, then it becomes difficult to separate them in the minds of those so deceived. As a result they hold the idea that any emotional feeling of closeness with another person somehow necessitates intimate behavior, particularly sexual behavior. One of the most tragic consequences of this type of confusion is when two people of the same sex become friends and share an emotional closeness. They are then deceived into thinking that if they have emotional closeness then that necessitates physical closeness and therefore they must have homosexual tendencies. Nothing could be further from the truth! However this kind of deception produces fear and loathing of one’s self and of others creating not intimacy but isolation and defensiveness. If this deception enters in before the identity is formed then a person may be deceived into thinking this is “who they are” and will loathe and fear not only others but themselves as well. What a sad and pitiful situation this is - all because of the confusion of intimacy with intimate behavior. We must be careful to flee from opening ourselves up to this kind of attack by the evil one.
Because intimacy is basically a sharing of self, a union and communion with others, its core element is self-sacrifice. In Erikson’s words: “consolidated identity permits the self-abandonment demanded by intimate affiliations ... (or) unions” True intimacy demands giving up one’s self. Of course, we have heard this same thing in the Church since the beginning. The very first requirement of a relationship with God is the abandonment of self, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself...” St Theophan, in speaking about the necessity of union with God says of the self: “...it is necessary to destroy (that fatal) ‘I, myself’.” In order to enter into intimate union with any other person it is necessary to sacrifice the newly acquired “self” identity - no longer looking for just “Who am I” but looking instead for “Who are we”.
By abandoning our “self”, we mean that we lower our defenses and open our “self” to another, becoming vulnerable, allowing the sharing of the core of who we are with another person. We see this kind of intimate relationship in many forms. We see in our relationship with friends (not acquaintances or companions, but true friends), we see it in our relationship with a spouse, and we see it in our relationship with God.
While the word “intimacy” has taken on the overtone of sexual intimacy and therefore of a relationship with a spouse or lover, this is really a severe limitation of intimacy. One can (and should) be intimate with all kinds of other people. When I was a young man, studying at the university, I met a friend, a guy who was “into” a lot of the same things I was. He became my best friend, we did everything together. Our friendship was intimate in that we opened ourselves up to one another and became a kind of duo. Together, there was nothing we couldn’t do, we shared our problems with one another and we supported one another - we even converted to the Orthodox Faith together. Even today, although we are long separated by time, distance and circumstance, it is still possible to pick up the phone or hop a plane and pick up as if no time had passed. This kind of intimacy has nothing to do with physical closeness, it is an emotional intimacy. These kind of intimate friendships do not stop with college buddies either. I find this same kind of close knit intimacy among my brother clergy - who are in my mind and heart very literally my brothers and in some cases closer than my flesh and blood brothers. This is the kind of intimacy for which we must develop a capacity.
I would not be surprised to find out that most if not all of you here saw the movies, “The Lord of the Rings”. The author of the original books, JRR Tolkein, was part of an informal group of friends, mostly writers or literary people, which included other notable authors such as CS Lewis, Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers among others. This group of friends would meet together and compare their work, offer support, suggestions, criticism to each other. They were part of an intimate group of friends - again an intimacy that had nothing to do with physical closeness, rather it was an emotional intimacy.
The relationship with one’s spouse requires intimacy. The physical intimacy is actually the “easy part” and although it may seem to be of overwhelming importance at the beginning, it is really only a small part of the true emotional and spiritual intimacy that become the real bond and strength of marriage. In fact, let me simply say that the physical intimacy of a marriage cannot create the emotional and spiritual intimacy but must be the result of or better yet the reflection of that deeper intimacy. If your emotional and spiritual lives are not intertwined then the physical relations become nothing more than a selfish act of taking your own pleasure and soon become “ordinary” and “lacking in excitement”. If that is the only intimacy in a marriage, the marriage itself is soon in trouble and will likely deteriorate as one or both spouses go looking for the “excitement” and “freshness” that they don’t find in the relationship with the spouse. But without the emotional and spiritual intimacy, the physical intimacy cannot last. On the other hand, for a couple who has become intimate in the emotional and spiritual aspects of their marriage the physical intimacy never loses its meaning and freshness. This is why in our Orthodox sacrament of marriage, there is so much emphasis on denying yourself for your spouse, of becoming a martyr for your spouse (yes, martyr, what do you think those crowns are for), of sacrificing and abandoning your “self” for your spouse. Now Orthodox marriage is another talk entirely and I’m sure that we could spend double the time just talking about it, however, perhaps this is something for another time.
The third type of intimate relationship is that of our relationship with God. Here we have the ultimate type of intimacy for not only to we sacrifice our “self” for this relationship but we sacrifice also our very life. When we talk about salvation in the Orthodox Church we are aspiring to a true union with God, to give up our “life” in order to participate in His life, the life of the Holy Trinity. St Theophan helps us define this goal: “The goal towards which the (Christian) should direct all his attention and labors is the final goal of man and economy of salvation, namely: pleasing God, a living unity with God, becoming worthy of his Kingdom. The searching, zealous spirit will only be at peace when he attains God, tastes Him and is filled (with Him).” Our Lord also spoke of this when He says, “We will come unto him, and make our abode with him” and “I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” The Apostle reiterates this by saying, “The Spirit of God dwelleth in you...that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” This is the ultimate intimacy and all others are only a shadow, a reflection, an icon if you will, of it. Intimacy with God supersedes and replaces all earthly intimacy. In the end it is the only intimacy that matters or that satisfies. While the intimacy with friends is an emotional intimacy and the intimacy with a spouse is an emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy, our intimacy with God is purely spiritual. This is not to say that it does not have emotional effects (such as the burning love of God or the passionlessness of the saints, or even physical effects (such as the incorruption of relics or the ability to work miracles), however these are only secondary, only the “side effects” of our union with God and the evidence of how His grace has permeated our own being. In order to participate in this great salvation we must have the capacity for intimacy and our identity, which we open to God, must be “in synch” with Him so that He might fill it with His Spirit (see now, the necessity of our identity as “Christian”).
In uniting with God we are entered into not only a relationship with the Holy Trinity, but also with the Body of Christ - that is the Church. In becoming one with Christ, we are joined with those others who are also one with Christ. So when you approach the Chalice to receive the Mysteries, take a brief moment and look at those who are approaching with you and realize that by receiving the Holy Mysteries you are united to one another not with the intimacy of friends or spouse, but with the intimacy of your union with God. We enter into a community. Community is actually another aspect of intimacy for a person who is stable in his identity enters into relationships with those who are different from himself. This much we also learn from the psychologists, but not only from them, but from the experience of the Church. The Apostle reminds of this by saying: “The body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one ... For in fact the body is not one member but many ... there are many members, yet one body.” I touched on this a little earlier when I talked about my experience of the priestly brotherhood of those who are ordained. But this experience of brotherhood is not limited only to clergy, it is something that can be and has been experienced by Orthodox Christians in all places and at all times. We are united to the saints, and so we treat them as our close friends, we speak with them in prayer, we praise their closeness to God and the accomplishments of their lives. We are united to one another, it is certainly possible to sense that unity when you meet an Orthodox Christian for the first time (assuming both are open to it). I have also found that if you approach your relationships with your fellow strugglers in the faith that this awareness of our union in Christ is soon felt. We pray for one another, we bear one another’s burdens, we share one another’s joys, when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer, when one member of the body rejoices we all rejoice and so on.
The antithesis of this communal state is that of individualism - that is rather than being united to others, we set ourselves apart from all others, guarding the barriers that are our self, not abandoning or sacrificing anything but presenting only a semblance of intimacy while in fact we preserve intact our “self”. In this, we become isolated from others - if not externally, then certainly internally. This is how one can be in the midst of a crowd, and yet alone - we cut ourselves off from all intimate relationships and most tragically from our union with God. It is not possible to be saved alone, but we are saved only as a part of the body, as a part of the community of Christ, as a part of the Church.
These psychological processes are important to us, not only for our worldly emotional health and well being, but also because they are important in our spiritual development and the working out of our salvation as well. All of the different processes identified in the “stages” I mentioned at the beginning are vital to our spiritual development in the Body of Christ. We talked about two of the most important - especially for this group, that of identity and intimacy. We saw how it was necessary for us to develop an identity as an Orthodox Christian and how this identity then serves to shape and give substance to our whole self. We saw also the necessity of developing the capacity for an intimate relationship and how that forms the basis of our relationship with God, which is itself the very essence of our salvation. Let me finish with the words of St Theophan who instructs us in how to maintain our identity as Christians and our intimacy with God:
“1) Accustom the mind to living in the presence of God. Let one force himself to ceaselessly behold God for he is near; and let him ascend to the feeling that he is seen by God. This practice is the doorway to God, the opening of heaven to the mind.
“2) Do everything for the glory of God, and in no thing - either outwardly nor inwardly - intend anything other than this glory. It should be the measuring stick of every endeavor and place its seal on each one.
“3) Do everything in an awareness of its being God’s will: proceed in this will and submit to it in everything with the whole soul. ... Whatever you do, force yourself to see that God wants this work from you; receive whatever you come across as from the hand of the Lord. ...
“By these spiritual activities the mind will see God more and more clearly, and conform itself (and one’s whole being) to the vision of God ...”