White Awake by Daniel Hill, Free for CAPC Members
White Awake brings us back again and again, gently but inexorably, to the truths that we’re so unwilling to face, steadily prying our hands from our eyes.
I used to be too good for Buzzfeed quizzes, those silly, frivolous time-wasters people click their way through in search of something self-congratulatory to say about themselves. As if choosing a pair of shoes, a pizza topping, and a favorite picture of Matthew McConaughey can lead to an insight about my soul, I’d think, and click through instead to the Important New York Times Article, the Gorgeous Prose Excerpt at Tin House, the Pressing and Controversial Post Du Jour.
And then one day last fall, a Facebook friend posted her Buzzfeed quiz result. “You belong in the Pacific Northwest,” it said. Well, so do I! I thought. Could Buzzfeed identify that correctly? And this friend was a librarian, a smart woman with a graduate degree. She was taking a Buzzfeed quiz. Hmmm, I said, clicking through. Maybe it’s okay to take a little Buzzfeed quiz. Just this once.
The quiz nailed me, and further quizzes identified me correctly as Belle (“Which Disney Princess Are You?”), Henry David Thoreau (“Which Classic Author Is Your Soul-Mate?”), and a Smug Dolphin (“Which Animal is Your Spirit Animal?”).
Smug, indeed, because these quizzes kept telling me that I was a beautiful bookworm, a free spirit, a nature lover, an appreciator of fine things, loyal and smart.
That’s so me, I thought every time. Buzzfeed is right!
My relationship with the Buzzfeed quizzes progressed slowly, but some months later, at my daughter’s fifth birthday party, I found myself in a circle of adults in the kitchen, all of us staring intently at our phones, all of us taking the “What 90’s Alt-Rocker Grrrrl Are You?” quiz. Oblivious to whatever the kids were getting into in the basement, we trumpeted our results to each other (I was Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth. Clearly). We were a group of highly-educated adults in our thirties and forties, most of us staff and faculty at the local university, and we were taking ridiculous quizzes together and analyzing the results.
I guess on some level it’s obvious why we like these kinds of quizzes: they’re mildly entertaining, they pass the time, they associate us with things we like. They make us feel good about ourselves, or if they don’t, they’re easy to ignore, or take again and again until we manipulate the results to get what we want. But is there more to it than that?
When I was in college, we didn’t have Buzzfeed quizzes. We could, however, write blogs. My younger siblings had their first blogs on Xanga (remember that site?). At the top of each Xanga post, you could put a little icon indicating what you were reading, listening to, or watching as you wrote. Currently listening to “Lifted or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” by Bright Eyes, the tag would say.
I was hesitant to identify myself in such a way, by the goods I was consuming, worrying that it was too performed, that I would be doing it in order to construct a certain presentation of my self rather than being authentic. If that sounds over-analytic for a nineteen-year old, understand that I had just taken a class on identity. In the course, we studied competing sociological views of what it meant to be a “self.”
The idea of individual identity became widely important in the Enlightenment, and philosophers at that time understood the self to be disembodied–I think, therefore I am–and transcendent, above the material world. This transcendent self was essential and unchanging, and not dependent on anyone or anything else. I liked that idea, the autonomy and independence it gave me, my essential self.
But pragmatists like William James disagreed, arguing that the self is social, changeable, and local–that it’s formed by interactions and possessions, and enmeshed in daily life. Erving Goffman compared the self to an actor on a stage, intentionally presenting a certain self to others, and using the set and props to communicate that self exactly. Were these Xanga status updates just props intended to present a certain self, or did they communicate something real and essential about me? Was my self formed by my possessions? Was I conforming to some external idea of what my self should be?
Conformity was the dark side to the constructionist understanding of the self, as sociologists in the 1950s began to realize. In The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Reisman worried that Americans were moving from being “inner-directed,” motivated by values instilled in childhood, and interested in production, to “other-directed,” motivated by public opinion and peer approval, and interested in consumption. The other-directed self:
“… Scours the social scene for feedback on its appearance, [and] slavishly takes shapes that are known to be socially acceptable and valued. The other-directed person wants more than mere tolerance and acceptance; he or she wants validation. Taken to the extreme, this self gives itself almost completely over to the group’s values, merging the desires and preferences of the individual and the group” (The Self We Live By, Holstein & Gubrium, p. 44).
The self becomes endlessly referential, not reliable at all. But that was 1950. We’ve come a long way.
Or am I taking Buzzfeed quizzes as a way of scouring the social scene for feedback on my identity? For validation of my self? Am I other-directed or inner-directed?
Is there a third way?
As Christians, of course, we hope that our identities are not inner or other-directed, but Spirit-directed. The cultivation of a certain persona, whether online or off, ought to be inextricably linked to the cultivation of character. Not A Character, but character: values, morals, and an unchanging idea of who we are in the world.
Yes, identity is socially constructed, but it’s not only socially constructed: it’s also constructed by God, the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. We are God’s image-bearers, and as such we ought to find our truest sense of identity in the ways that we reflect the image of an invisible God. God has given us an identity that is essential and unchanging: we are sons and daughters of the King, we are bringing in the upside-down kingdom Jesus proclaimed. We are not conforming to the standards of the world: we are being conformed into his image.
And yet: I think there can be something true and good in the desire to take these silly quizzes, something beyond a need to fritter away ten minutes online. Such desire reflects a human need to be truly seen, to be known and named. We identify with the things we love; we want to be identified by the things we love. Those are God-given desires.
The thrill of recognition when a ridiculous internet quiz names me the same way I would name myself is–this sounds silly–but maybe it’s the teeniest foretaste of the thrill of recognition I will feel one day when I come fully into the identity God has prepared for me, the sanctified self he’ll whisper a new name to in the new heavens and new earth.
Perhaps what we ought to remember, when the quizzes name us in a way that feels true, is that one day God will bestow upon each of us secret, perfect, life-giving names. “Everyone who is victorious will eat of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it (Rev. 2:17).”
And a new name is more than just a change in Twitter handle (important as that can be). “In the ancient Near East,” Dan Allender explains in To Be Told, “a name conferred meaning and a future to be lived up to or lived down. A name marked a person with a set of expectations that determined the person’s place in the family and in the world.”
In Jewish culture, names were chosen to reflect the unique calling and character of a child. As we live into our God-given identities, the story God has written for us, we will also live into the names he has chosen.
Our social media choices (like all our choices) emanate from our true selves as well as from our desire to present certain selves to the world. Our desire to take quizzes, and to share our results on social media, reflects the human, God-given desire to be known and named. Even people who don’t take the quizzes are making choices in order to cultivate a certain kind of identity– like pre-Buzzfeed-quiz-me, studiously avoiding the frivolous and turning to the Serious Important Things. But whatever identity we cultivate ought to reflect our identity as chosen and beloved children of God. Whatever affirmation we receive from Buzzfeed quizzes is only the faintest whisper of the affirmation we will one day hear from God when he names us.
Then again, maybe these quizzes are just a way to kill the fifteen minutes before the lunch break. What do I know, anyway? I’m just a Smug Dolphin–a beloved, chosen, smug dolphin.
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