The phenomenon of “self-identifying” isn’t a laughing matter. Consider where identity comes from and why our youth can’t find it.
School psychologists say “Gen Z” is asking this question more than ever, and their answers are making headlines as they “self-identify” as members of one group or another — political, cultural, or sexual.
If you’re inclined to dismiss this phenomenon as a joke, think again: Our culture has made it very difficult for this generation to know who they are, and they desperately want to know.
The first component of your personal identity is your body.
A Thomist here at Benedictine College likes to ask his class what he is holding in his hand. He points out that you could call it a “hard-shelled petroleum-based product,” but that it makes more sense to name the thing by what it does and call it a marker.
John Paul II’s entire “theology of the body” does the same thing. “The body reveals the person,” he says, “in its masculinity and femininity,” and “a precise awareness of the nuptial meaning of the body, of its generative meaning, is necessary.”
But Gen Z has grown up in a world where the “nuptial meaning” of the body is not clear at all. Its generative powers are, more often than not, intentionally thwarted. It has gotten so that even women at a Women’s March can’t define what a woman is.
Second, your identity comes from your family.
Identification by family was so strong in biblical times that people were known as “Simon, son of Jonah,” or “sons of Zebedee.” Kristin Lavransdatter, the fictional Norwegian heroine, was indeed Lavran’s daughter. If all that seems strange, it shouldn’t: Americans also take our dad’s (or our spouse’s dad’s) last name.
But with divorce and fatherlessness at epidemic levels, a single family no longer clearly marks us. Gen Z are often “freelance” children who connect with one family after another, depending on whom they are visiting — mom, dad, grandparents, step grandparents, etc.
Third, your identity comes from your religion.
Next, our identity comes from our relationship with God. This makes sense: God created us in his image and likeness, and so we can best find our identity in him.
This is so true, said Pope Benedict, that, “without the Creator the creature would disappear. … When God is forgotten, the creature itself grows unintelligible.”
This makes it difficult for Gen Z, who have been surrounded most of their lives by institutions that have “forgotten” God, and who are less likely than previous generations to identify with a religion.
Fourth, your identity comes from your country or region.
One of our first introductory questions is, “Where are you from?” Christians have always agreed that region is an important part of personal identity — from “the man from Galilee” to the Canterbury Tales, from Leo Tolstoy to Flannery O’Connor.
The difficulty for Gen Z is that families are no longer rooted in a region the way we all once were — my children are from four states — and their grandparents, aunts and uncles are all on different coasts. Like much of Gen Z, they are “from” all over, and nowhere.
Fifth, your identity comes from your vocation or occupation.
The next question we ask someone is, “What do you do?” “Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures,” said St. Pope John Paul.
In former times, occupations were so straightforward they became names — Baker, Fisher, Fuller, Taylor, Thatcher. But in the 21st century, much of our work has been digitized and happens at a remove from any actual products our enterprises produce.
Ask a Gen Zer “What do your mom and dad do?” and you will often get the answer, “I don’t know. Something with a computer in an office.”
Last, we get our identity from our education.
As Pope Francis put it, education is necessary “to form mature individuals capable of overcoming division and antagonism.”
But most Gen Z Americans have been educated in what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dictatorship of relativism” that omits any vision of truth that is not based on empiricism. Bishop Robert Barron calls this new approach “scientism” and says “it imperils poetry and art, for instance, as much as religion, as well as the venerable discipline of philosophy.”
So don’t mock Gen Z for not knowing who they are. How could they?
It is our job to show them. Ultimately, says Pope Benedict XVI, we really have only one identity: “A being in the image of God who is loved and is made to love.”
The only way to find yourself is to give yourself away. “The other reveals me to myself,” he said. Love and serve God; love and serve others. Then you will know who you are.
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