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In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to distinguish information that is true from information that is false. Increasingly, we must rely on others to filter information for us—to both simplify and align it with our interests. Yet, despite such efforts by information hosts or providers, error and falsehood abound. This is because many dispensers of information have no interest in providing information that is objectively or verifiably correct; rather, their motive is to promote their opinions as true, which many accept as truth’s surrogate.There is danger in accepting as true an idea that is false; so, we are invited to consider an important question: “How does one come to accept something as true however unlikely the idea may be?”
As it turns out, the answer to that question is in large part associated with a concept called identity. Identity is the culmination of the many internal stories we tell ourselves, stories we use to make sense of the world around us. Our identity story influences our personality, emotions, and experiences because it affects how we see the world around us and how we interpret our experiences and the experiences of others. Because identity affects our view of the world, our behavior is highly correlated with our identity. In fact, over the past forty years research has repeatedly shown this to be the case. If you want to understand how and why a person believes and acts the way they do, you must first understand the person’s identity.
I likened a person’s identity to their internal story, but it is more accurate to think of our identity as a collection of short stories that can be read together and enjoyed collectively. By calling our experiences a story, I do not mean to suggest that our stories are all imagined or trivial. Some of the stories we tell ourselves are subjective, but most are non-fiction accounts. Even then, however, a non-fictional, biographical account, can be changed by us depending on what details we include, so we must acknowledge at the outset that our stories are important, in most cases verifiable, but can become fantasy tales or overly dramatized by us during the telling. The fact that we are not a single story, but a compilation of many stories has been confirmed by research on identity. It is the fact that our total identity is multi-faceted that makes us interesting human beings with stories that many people want to hear and experience.
In general, we obtain our stories through our experiences. The more we experience, the greater our opportunity to write new stories or add new details to existing ones. Many of the stories we write are not “new to the world,” per se, because we source our material from our surroundings, but we make the stories our own through the individual telling of them which makes them unique within the world library of storybooks. The context in which our stories are acquired begins early in life. We write stories about our race, our gender, our ethnicity, our family relationships, and on and on. Some contexts are so powerful that we can’t help but tell our stories when we encounter the setting, race and ethnicity are such examples. Think of these stories like those told around a campfire in the mountains. The rugged context almost requires that our stories are told in a certain way—scary or solemnly—and adhere to certain conventions—details are not to be questioned (like campfire stories about Sasquatch!) but accepted as absolute facts. Context is a powerful factor in the stories we tell ourselves.
Our total identity collection wasn’t written all at once. In fact, we wrote and continue to write new stories throughout our lives. In this way, our identity stories are fluid, meaning they change over the course of our lives. Over time, some stories fade in importance to us; perhaps as our circumstances change or we gain new experience. When this happens, we can skip over a story—or chapter, and move onto the stories we continue to enjoy. In certain situations, often significant—we may tear chapters out from our collection. As the owner and author of our volume, this we are at liberty to do. In some cases, such action can be exactly what we need to do to pursue greater purpose with our lives. However, stories are continually reinforced through 1) the telling, 2) our associations with others with similar stories, and 3) by acting in concert with the details of the story. These three methods ensure our stories remain the vital plot points in our collected works.
Most stories are written to climax in the middle or ending and then conclude with some resolution. Our identity stories are different. As a collection, our stories actively compete for primacy in our lives; meaning we place our favorite stories at the front of our collection. In the case of identity, it is the first chapter which provides us with the necessary details to understand our story collection. The story we select as the first chapter in our identity stories, therefore, is essential. As mentioned previously, our stories are fluid as we gain new experience, so the first chapter need not and often does not remain in the prime position for ever. It is true that we work hard rehearsing and retelling essential details and adding new detail—as necessary—to keep our first chapter interesting. But as soon as it fails to provide explanatory power to us of the world or becomes less interesting to us than one of our other stories, we will replace it. In fact, because of the constant clamoring of our other stories for the number one position, it is difficult for any story to hold onto the top spot forever.
A final point confirmed by research is that we decide the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we like and will continually reinforce, and those which we will prioritize or discard. We act, in effect, as the author, editor, proof-reader, and publisher of our stories. As important as context and experience are to our stories development, we ultimately decide which stories we enjoy, those we want published, and the stories to remove or retire into the latter chapters of our collection. Because we retain these decision-rights, we decide which stories others will see and hear and the extent to which certain stories matter within our collection. These decision-rights hold true for all people capable of telling a story, which means that for most of us, we control the script.
So how does identity affect what we believe? We filter incoming information through the details and experiences of our first chapter, which sets the context for information we select and either integrate into our existing stories or discard all together. If we discover information that we think is most useful, we will keep it, but non-useful information, we will discard. Most often, we choose information to make our first chapter more interesting to us or to others. Sometimes, however, we find information that makes our primary stories less interesting, or we find information that could make some of our other stories better, so we rearrange the order of our collection. When this happens, we activate our editor role and reprioritize the stories and make changes—sometimes a full rewrite—of our former number one story. During this process, we remove all uninteresting details and replace them with information that is better aligned with our number one story to ensure better continuity and internal consistency. We prefer the stories in our collection to be internally consistent and facilitate an easy telling.
Many of us can think of times when we have had to rewrite our life stories. For the most part, revisions happen easily and without a lot of conscious awareness. However, first chapter reprioritization and the rewrite process usually are very painful and requires much effort. This is because our first story is primarily how others see us and know us and—as it turns out—others are just as invested in keeping our top story right where it is and will work to ensure your story prioritization doesn’t change. We must, therefore, ensure that our stories are good and true before the difficult work of story reprioritization is underway. But where do we start?
If identity is so vital to understanding our beliefs and behavior, shouldn’t we expect God to provide some guidance as to what our first story should be? Is there a story that is flexible to account for the varied personalities and experiences of people everywhere? If such an identity story does exist, and can accommodate the needs of men and women the world over, what is it and where can one go to learn it? As it turns out, God has said much about it and has been repeating it to us for a long time.