Today I'm heading to a youth retreat hosted by our church, and speaking to the teens about identity and dreams. In a moment of weakness, I volunteered to speak instead of planning a game (the initial request), as games for youth cause me to feel existential dread mixed with sweaty-palmed fear. Speaking seemed easier at the time, and I'm passionate about the topic, but this week was very busy with the back-to-school rush, and I decided with specific intent not to obsess over this, and simply speak of the cuff.
I am not a person who does much of anything spontaneously, and now that the appointed day and time is upon me, I'm wondering if I'm going to freeze up like a deer in the headlights, or if I'm going to rise to the occasion, and command the attention of a group of young people who would probably prefer to be somewhere else rather than listening to an oldie like me drone on.
I'm trying to keep it short and sweet - thirty minutes at the most - and start by asking them how they would define identity, and how they think identity is created. I hope that they answer, but if they look down and stay silent, I can always provide the answer I'm seeking, and have a discussion with myself. To me, identity is knowing who you are, and while it may be influenced by outside sources like your family, society, the media, and friends, it is ultimately controlled by you. Each person is in charge of who they are, if we can access the courage not to be pressured or overly influenced by anyone else, and trust that who we are is always enough.
This is a hot button topic for me, because I didn't truly understand who I was until my late twenties, and it took me many years past that point to actually walk out who I really am, and stop apologizing to others for my own opinions and ideas. I had to stop thinking about what other people wanted, and focus on what I wanted. It was not an easy process, but easily the best and most rewarding thing I've ever done, and I would give my right arm to see the kids I speak to complete this process much earlier than I did, so they can experience their twenties as themselves, and not versions they create in a losing attempt to make others happy.
Identity and dreams are the flip sides of the same coin. If you know who you are, and have the confidence to be who you are, your dreams will flow from your identity, and you will end up doing something you love instead of something you feel pressured into. We all know people in their thirties, forties, fifties, sixties or beyond who didn't bother to carve out their own identity, and ended up in a job that made money but they hated doing, and they didn't find the spark of joy that would've set them free to really enjoy their lives. And then we all know people who currently do what they love to do, and have the freedom to change careers if they aren't satisfied, and they experience a contentment that can't be manufactured.
It's impossible to love what you do in every moment of every day. That's not the goal. But getting out of bed and having a sense of purpose that you are doing what you were created to do, and filling a need that only you can fill in this world, that is the type of joy I'm referring to, and I know for a fact that it is possible to achieve, but you must know yourself in order to find it.
I hope to inspire the youth to accept no substitutes when it comes to their identity. We all have to resist the pressure we feel on a daily basis - from our parents, our friends, our teachers and society at large - and work hard to develop our own likes and dislikes, and stand behind them when they are questioned. That is the way to character, and to purpose, and eventually to making your dreams a reality.