Basing Identity on Our Desires

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I remember something that was on TV, not that long ago, that was one of those hidden camera shows. The premise was to stage situations that called for everyday people to get involved and intervene in a situation.

So one example had a group of teenagers harassing a homeless person in a really obnoxious way. Another one set a scene where a blind man asks for help from someone to use his money to make a purchase, but instead of helping him, she takes advantage of him by pretending he has less money than he does so that she can pocket it.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of shows like that because I find that they tend to pander to stereotypes to an almost satirical degree but it did get me reflecting on something about how we view ourselves in light of our conflicting emotions and subsequent decisions.

I’m willing to bet that if a random sample of people were polled about their willingness to do the right thing in a tough situation, most would say that they would, but if push came to shove, that percentage would drop dramatically if put to the test.

And this raises an interesting question for me. If we all have the desire to do the right thing, but aren’t necessarily always willing to, does that mean that our desires to do the right thing translate into high moral inventory?

Let me try to use and example of what I mean. Imagine you’re driving on a lonely road and you see a car pulled over with their hazards on and a person standing beside it trying to flag motorists down for help. Now you immediately perceive, within yourself, a desire to help and be a good neighbor to someone in need. But at the same time, you’re also aware of a desire to get to where you’re going without delay and maybe even a fear or anxiety about interacting with someone you don’t know who, for all you know, could be dangerous.

In the end, you decide not to stop and keep on driving. So let me ask you, in that scenario, do you think it would be fair to call yourself a hero merely because you had a desire to help out, whether or not your choices reflected that desire?

Now, Imagine someone at work has made a big mistake that will cost the company in a big way. When her boss starts asking what happened, she feels a strong desire to lie so that she doesn’t get blamed and face the potential consequences. In spite of that desire, she decides to tell the truth and own up to what happened.

So, again, let me pose the same question. Is it accurate to say that because she had a desire to lie that she is a liar or is it her choice that matters the most?

Ok, one last example. Imagine a man who has found himself extremely attracted to a female acquaintance but it’s a cause of stress for him because he’s married. In spite of these powerful desires, he does not encourage them or act on them in any way, but stays faithful to his wife.

So, the question again: is it fair to characterize him as an adulterer because of feelings and desires that are not reflected by his actual choices. Are his, and by extension our, identities defined by our desires or by our choices?

Because there are a litany of qualities that could be used to characterize us that are beyond our control. Things like our skin color, gender, our sexual desires, our fears, our preferences. And unfortunately, there is this popular idea out there that our identity hinges on these kinds of things and that we should conduct our behaviour according to these determining factors.

But I’m the kind of person who likes to think that our choices matter – that we have some say in who we are and how we are perceived by others. That doesn’t mean that we can change some of those factors, but it does mean we have some say in the identity we embrace. Are you merely the sum of your desires and appetites and what other people say you are or are you the sum of your choices?

Generations of people, through movements like the civil rights movement, fought for the freedom to be judged by their individual choices rather than traits they share with others for which they have no choice or control over.

Martin Luther King said something to the effect of, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Character is defined by choices and that’s encouraging, because it means we aren’t trapped by factors beyond our control. We can influence our outcomes. We can let our moral conscience and choices frame our identity instead of our desires.

So I would urge anyone listening to this to embrace the freedom that comes from your ability to make choices. When societal pressures, or family, or your emotions compel you to relinquish your freedom so as to embrace some preconceived notion about who you are and what determines your identity, remember that you always have a choice to live in what is true and good and it is the truth that sets us free.

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