One of the most important roles I play is ‘brother.’ I have three younger brothers, and regardless of what I do, they see it. There is a weight and responsibility to those relationships. In some ways, I’ve had to step in as a father figure, in others a friend. If I had to grade myself on how well I do in this role, I’d give myself a B-. I’m not always there for my oldest brother like I wish I was, and my youngest brother is so different personality-wise that sometimes I’m not sure how to talk to him. Definitely some room for improvement.
Another is that of ‘husband.’ This one is even more complicated and scary when I take a step back. I am one of two in this relationship, and that other person’s life is so intertwined with mine that every action I take directly affects them, even when I wish it wouldn’t. Had I graded myself on this role two years ago, I’d have given myself a D-, but I guess I’ll bump it up to a C+ these days. I want to be a better husband, to lavish my wife with gifts and words and all the love in the world, but I take her for granted more often than I don’t.
What about you? What are a few roles that you consider important? How do you feel you’re doing in those areas?
One thing I’ve learned – we’re almost always harder on ourselves than others are on us. If I were to ask my brothers or my wife to grade me? I’d bet they’d give me a full letter grade higher than I gave myself.
Like a well-worn shirt
Roles are important. They help us establish our identity, help us give voice to who we believe ourselves to be, who we want to be. They are the measuring sticks we hold up to our lives, and more often than not we’re falling far, far short.
These roles are necessary, comfortable. We search for meaning in our lives, and for many of us, this is where it’d found. If any of my brother’s lives are better for my being there, then my own life is better. If my wife is happy and feels loved, then I’m doing alright.
The other side of the coin
What happens when we fail at the roles in which we most identify? I mean really fail. If I were to shatter the trust between me and my brothers or do something that flies in the face of the love I profess for my wife? What then? Who are we when we fail at the very roles we adopt, that we use to shape our self-identity? What’s left after that?
For me, it’s shame, crushing guilt, self-loathing. I want to view myself as a good man, a good husband, a good brother, but I can’t rightly do so when I screw up again and again. What good am I if I can’t even be a decent brother or husband?
Learning which roles matter
I mentioned in a previous article that I reached out to a friend during a particularly dark part of my life. He invited me to a group that meets every Thursday night. He had developed a curriculum around the idea of identity, and the concept of ‘roles’ was the very first lesson. I learned a lot in the intervening weeks, but one of the most poignant lessons in that curriculum was this. It has changed the way I view myself.
The role of husband, of brother, of friend, of employee – those were all entirely dependent on what I did, on how I performed. I could put on a good face, and I could say all the right things, but I knew I couldn’t even measure up to my own expectations. I was stuck.
My friend reminded us all that we have another role, one that we can do nothing to earn, that we can’t succeed or fail at:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry “Abba! Father!”
I was an adopted son. Have you ever been through an adoption? Have you ever met anyone that has? It has very little to do with the child themselves but is rather a conscious, intentional decision by the parents. Many children in situations where they are fostered or adopted struggle with behavioral issues. A good parent sees beyond those issues and chooses that child anyway, regardless of how they act. They see that that child has value and worth beyond their actions.
So there I was, learning that my whole life had been a lie. I didn’t need to be perfect to be loved. I didn’t need to be a better husband, or a better brother. I didn’t need to be anything. I was already something incredible – an adopted son of God.
That was – is – foundational for me. My roles of husband and brother are still there, but they no longer define me. When I fail in those roles, I still beat myself up, still feel that comfortable, familiar weight of guilt and shame, but beneath it all is a role that I can’t screw up. I’m chosen, loved, and there isn’t anything I can do to change that (despite my repeated efforts).
My primary role, the role on which all other roles are built, is being an adopted son of God. Because of that role, and the freedom in understanding I can’t earn my adoption or His love, all the other roles are better. I’m a better husband, a better brother, a better employee, a better son, a better friend.
I realize that not everyone reading this will have the same belief structure. I’m alright with that. I believe there is value here for anyone that reads it. The roles you adopt do not define you. If they do define you, your world will eventually crumble. What is at your core? What holds everything else together? Understanding that will bind you, make you whole.
It starts in each of us, though we look for it without. A place to belong, to be. Who you are isn’t what you do, what you will do, or what has been done to you. Who you are isn’t even how you feel about yourself. I can’t answer the question ‘Who am I?’ for anyone but myself, but I challenge you to explore it and seek the answer. For me, finding that answer has been everything I didn’t know I’d been missing.