Letter from the Editor: Tell Me Who I Am
Someone has posited that when you meet someone new, you have just seven seconds to make a good impression. This is when you need to be ready with a warm smile, a firm handshake, and a short but memorable introduction. All these things can be carefully crafted and practiced, put on hold until needed, then brought out for such situations.
The past few months I’ve met more new people than usual, due to some unexpected work and personal situations, giving me ample opportunities to trot out (and refine) my standard attempt at making a good first impression. In some settings, I leaned more heavily on my workload, in others my personal connections, and still others, my passion projects. All of these aspects of me were true, but they were different parts of the whole. Even so, these parts weren’t everything.
Behind all our attempts at self-definition, I think it’s most telling what we choose not to share with others. Those less honorable parts are the things we ignore or downplay or hope no one else notices.
If we lean heavily into the good parts of who we are, does that diminish the not-so-good parts? Can we remake ourselves into the sort of people we wish we could be? Even if we are successful, will the self we craft be something true and lasting or will it be a shadow of reality?
All of us are looking for a more defining sense of self. In this issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, the feature essays and support articles ask us to think of the ways we attempt to define who we are.
In “Finding Reason and Goodness in the Longing for a Superhero,” Arianne Benedetto sorts out the superhero craze that has overwhelmed our culture in the past decade:
“If any more proof is needed that superhero movies give voice to those who feel the need for justice and safety, consider this: Wonder Woman and Black Panther were two of the most successful, most talked about superhero movies during what have become two of the biggest reckonings of our time—#MeToo and Black Lives Matter. It’s not just that these two are exceptionally powerful individuals who resemble traditionally marginalized populations in our world. Both Wonder Woman and Black Panther emerge from places where even the idea of their people being oppressed is a ridiculous and foreign notion. It’s not just that their bodies are strong; their psyches are unwounded, and their homes are microcosmic depictions of a world unspoiled by the cruelty and devastation caused by sin and the fall.
“A large part of why we love superheroes the way we do is because we’re all hurting so dang much, and we lean into these stories most when our pain and fear are felt most deeply.”
Hurt and longing is part of our shared human experience. Our aches send us looking for soothing, often in the form of love and connection. This isn’t a modern reaction, but Dennis Oh asserts in “Swipe Right: Tinder and the Quest for Perfection” that we do have unique modern solutions at our fingertips:
“Confessional positions will certainly vary among readers, but I wonder whether the Tinder phenomenon sheds light on the powerful link between affection and visual stimuli. The Tinder profile is a manicured attempt at what could be, which reaches deep into our visual psyche to draw a longing for more, an approach toward the ideal, the promise of communion and embrace. With each session of incessant, unsatisfied swiping, we are painfully reminded that the perfect does not exist in this world; the better is always next, ahead of us, eluding us.”
Things are not perfect in our hearts, which sets us on the quest to find it somewhere, out there. We are all looking for something or someone to make things right inside ourselves and outside in the world at large. What we fail to grasp, however, is that brokenness is all around, in the world, in others… and these broken pieces can never make a whole. John Thomas sees a connection between this cobbling together of identity and the classic novel Frankenstein. He says this in his feature “A Frankenstein Approach to Self-Definitions”:
“Yet every day we do just that, crafting carefully curated online versions of ourselves on various social media platforms, broadcasting who we are and what we are about on our terms. We define ourselves apart from a relationship with our Maker and those he puts in our lives. A culture of hyper-individualism makes this trend appear normal and reasonable. But is it?
“In some ways our self-defining social media tendencies are similar in scope to Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein. This idea might seem surprising at first, as we have taken the monster from Frankenstein and turned him into a green, drooling goon who can barely walk. What can such a villain have to do with our social media habits? But at a deeper level, the book isn’t really about a monster at all, it’s about the negative, unintended consequences of unfettered ambition consumated. In that way we all have our own Frankensteins.”
It’s possible that we are all on the same quest: to escape the horrific parts of our own selves. It’s a relentless drive to get away from the ugliness that nags and gnaws. But running never works, because wherever we go, there we are. Maylin Tu offers a personal reflection on how the brokenness endured in our family of origin must be faced to find the resolution we seek. “On First Reformed, Narcissism, and Being a Beautiful Soul,” Tu explains:
“The problem with hidden abuse is that if you don’t name it, then you continue to suffer—because your reality is distorted.
“Sometimes growing up and out of trauma means deconstructing the mental and emotional landscape we were given by our parents. I’m trying to redraw my inner map, to embrace hope instead of despair in the form of hope.
“At the end of First Reformed, Toller doesn’t go through with his plan to suicide bomb the church because Mary is there, the representation of his idealized self. In the last scene of the movie, she interrupts him mid-suicide, and they passionately embrace and kiss in a swirl of light and movement. Is this hope? Is he really saved? Or is this an ecstatic vision Toller has on the brink of death, a last moment of divine grace?”
That’s the thing: All of us have definitions of self rooted in brokenness, which is why we are running about looking for ways to craft something more palatable. Who are we really? That is the question echoing in our hearts, the mystery that begs an answer that can only be found in the One who knows us best.