What Has Made Me Who I Am Does Not Have to Be What I Become

What Has Made Me Who I Am Does Not Have to Be What I Become May 5, 2017

This guest post was written by Ellen Perleberg.


I’m a high school senior from a small town in Central Washington. Since I was thirteen years old, I’ve known exactly what I want to do “when I grew up”: I want to become a professor of linguistics at a major research university. I want to research and write papers and teach. Because I have had this answer ready for so long, people started to ask me what I want to specialize in. I’d say that I wasn’t sure, but perhaps an indigenous language family in Central America, because I already spoke Spanish and had studied the culture and politics of the region. Then it struck me: what has made me who I am does not have to be what I become.

This was a shocking, liberating idea for me. It seemed so obvious, since I was going to college to learn new things and have new experiences, but it also seemed contrary to everything I had learned. Suddenly, this simple idea permeated every aspect of my life. It became a mantra, a lifeline: what has made me who I am does not have to be what I become.

My Spanish teacher, a woman I admire very much as a teacher, a Christian, and a friend, graduated from the high school where she now teaches, attended the local community college, and then transferred to the state university forty-five minutes away.

What has made me who I am does not have to be what I become.

My mother has spent her life fighting the bureaucracy of special education for my little sister. She stays home because my sister needs someone to be her everything. My mom is strong and brave and amazing. I’m exhausted just watching her.

What has made me who I am does not have to be what I become. 

For much of my childhood, my dad was drunk. For my brother and me, it became our normal. We learned to anticipate when our father would be the brilliant, selfless man he is, and we learned when we couldn’t count on him to be our father. One day, my brother told me he was never going to drink and demanded I promise the same. My brother was ten years old. I didn’t know what to tell him, but had I known it then, I would have said, “What has made us who we are does not have to be what we become.

What if we taught the Gospel like this? Because that’s what it is: the incredible, life-changing message that the experiences and conditions of our lives are not permanent. That what we know to be true, to be our reality, is dynamic.

I’d like to tell this to my peers. To tell them that our lives do not have to be defined by our grade point averages. By the letters on our varsity jackets. By the “troublemaker” prophecies that have been fulfilling themselves since elementary school.

What if we made this the new evangelism? I grew into God around the Billy Graham four-step evangelism recipe. The one that starts with “God loves you” and then somehow turns into “Repent, sinner, before the flames of hell consume you.” This is not just simplified, it’s simplistic. Jesus and his disciples smashed through the social categories of his time, eating with sinners and spending time with people who lived on the “wrong” side of town. They bore the burden of every label extant in the first century.

In Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian McLaren refers to “a crucified man and a ragtag band of his followers.” The Gospel is the good news that a ragtag band can unite beneath one man on a cross. That we too can smash through all our labels and make something beautiful.

But though our past experiences are not defining, they do contribute to our identity and self-concept. What has made me who I am is, of course, a part of who I am. The communities I come from – the small town, the world of special needs – are enormously meaningful to me. I never want to forget them, and they will continue to inform my decisions. But my faith allows me to challenge them and to separate my identity from them, even as I continue to interact with them.

Paul is the foremost example of this. He was the ultimate model of a man born again in Christ, but he carried with him the world he knew before, and that made his legacy. He could become the Apostle to the Gentiles because he knew them. He could be, at the same time, one of them and one in Christ.

But the past doesn’t let go easily and, for all the good it contains, it also carries baggage. Unfortunately, those negative experiences don’t go away with one prayer. The sort of evangelism told in before-and-after stories often forgets this. It expects its converts to be instantly cured, and in doing so, forces far too many into silence as they feel ashamed to admit that the “after” isn’t all smiles and praise.

McLaren again hits the nail on the head when he describes “the new humanity that transcends and includes all previous identities.” Our past experiences are a part of us, but they are not all of us. What has made us who we are does not have to be what we become.


Image via Unsplash.

About Ellen Perleberg
Ellen Perleberg is a student from Washington. She’s been an atheist and an Evangelical, and she loves the Internet because it’s taught her there are alternatives. She blogs about the transformative power of storytelling at Babel Scattered.

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