I have found no better time to ponder the foundation of identity, of sense of self, than when my ability to “do” is limited. I ask myself, “is my identity tied into what I create, produce, or accomplish? Is it determined by how other people think of me, treat me, respond to me, praise me? Is it connected to my possessions, positions, roles I play? Can my identity be challenged, shattered, swept away when I am unable to produce or get approval? Is my identity built on the Rock or on sand?”

Illustrating the importance of a true sense of identity, Sheri Dew said,

Satan knows how spiritually potent the knowledge of our divine identity is. He hates women of the noble birthright… Thus it should not surprise us that the master of deceit is going all out to keep us from comprehending the majesty of who we are. He offers an array of seductive but sorry substitutes – hoping to preoccupy us with the world’s artificial identifiers. Clearly, Satan wants us to see ourselves as the world sees us, not as the Lord sees us, because the world’s mirror, like a circus mirror in which a five-foot-ten-inch woman appears two feet tall, distorts and minimizes us. Satan tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough. Not thin enough. Not cute enough. Not clever enough. Not anything enough. And that is a big, fat, devilish lie (No Doubt About It, p. 46). 

Maintaining a strong positive identity seems to be a hard enough challenge for most us even when we are actively engaged in good causes, serving, learning, contributing, able to take care of family members and ourselves. It can be much harder if we are elderly, disabled, or suddenly unable to do the most mundane daily chores. If we are the one needing service, it is all too easy to lose our grasp on what we previously defined as “I.”  When poor health strips away the ability to “do,” an identity crisis almost always follows.

In a Readers Digest article titled “My Wakeup Call,” an MD named Mimi Guarneri wrote.

A naturally hardy person, I was proud of my constitution and ability to ward off viruses and bugs. But suddenly I was transformed into a pale, weak and listless body draped over the bed…  It wasn’t until I was literally knocked off my feet that I was able to see what I couldn’t discern when I was up on my physician’s pedestal – that being ill challenged your whole sense of self. It was a chastening thought (March, 2006 issue, p. 193).

How can we transcend this challenge to identity that seems rooted in cultural myths that focus on the importance of “doing” rather than than the importance of “be-ing”?

Recognizing the Power of Identity Based on “Be-ing”

I remember my first experience with clearly seeing the difference between a “doing” and a “being” identity. After my mission I attended BYU for a semester. I served on a committee to honor Sister McKay, wife of then-president David O. McKay. We knew she was in fragile heath, and were thrilled to get confirmation that she would be able to attend.

The day of the program was memorable. As they rolled Sister McKay into the auditorium in her wheelchair, the very ambiance of the room changed. This little woman had a glow about her, an aura that created in me a feeling akin to reverence. At the end of program, we presented a memory quilt to Sister Mckay. She was handed a microphone and attempted to respond; her speech was not clear – but her feelings were! Members of the committee were the first to have the opportunity to greet this tiny silver-haired woman after the program was over. I approached her, took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes. I was overcome with the power of who she was. Her spirit was mighty, though her body was weak. She gave so much to all of us simply by her presence that day.

I have often referred back to that memory when I have experienced physical limitations. Sister McKay couldn’t “do” anything at that point in her life – yet she had a profound influence on all around her because of her “being.”  She knew who she was. 

Do I Know Who I Am?

How can I know who I am? How can I establish an identity solid enough that it cannot be washed away by a tsunami of perceived failure or sudden disability… or by the slow but equally devastating deterioration of disease and old age?

Sheri Dew said,

It is the Spirit who reveals to us our identity – which isn’t just who we are, but who we have always been… Our spirit longs for us to remember the truth about who we are, because the way we see ourselves, or our sense of identity, affects everything we do. It affects the way we behave, the way we respond to uncertainty, the way we see others, the way we handle pressure and disappointment, the way we feel about ourselves, and the way we make choices. In short, it determines how we live our lives. So, the question we might all do well to ponder is not only who we are, but who we have always been (Sheri Dew, No Doubt About It, pp. 36, 37).

Job’s Identity Was Righteousness

Sean Brotherson said,

Finding himself in the midst of life’s storms, Job expressed a hope that he might “be weighed in an even balance, that God may know mine integrity” (Job 31:6).  He was challenged and lost his wealth, his status, his power [and his health!].  Yet Job did not lose that which gave him the riches of eternity and the esteem of heaven ? his integrity and uprightness before God.  He recounted, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me” (Job 29:14).  Job’s answer to the question of suffering was his life and his commitment to discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Is discipleship dependent on physical works? Is our level of righteousness challenged when we are physically unable to do “works of righteousness?” Let me attempt to answer those questions with more questions. Is a baby less righteous because it can’t help with the housework? Was Sister McKay less righteous, less a disciple of Christ when confined to a wheelchair, unable to do, even unable to speak clearly? Is a person in a hospital bed less righteous than the doctors and nurses attending him simply because he is unable to do and serve? Is a disabled person limited in depth of discipleship because of the disability?

I can see the answer clearly in my mind, but my emotions have a harder time processing this whole issue.  The question is clearly one of character and of spirit, not of physical capability. But what a struggle it is to feel as strong a sense of self when we are ill!

Trusting the Lord’s Foreknowledge

My patriarchal blessing promises me the health and strength I need to live to fill my life’s mission. Not to win the Olympics or run marathons or even clean the neighbor’s house or work at the cannery – but to fill MY life’s mission. The Lord knew perfectly the kind of body he was sending my spirit to live in – the genetic weaknesses, the super sensitive nervous system, etc.

He also had foreknowledge of the accidents, illnesses, and emotional traumas that would affect that body. What if all those things were not obstacles to me filling my mission, but part of it? What if every illness, limitation, and emotional challenge was contributive to my ability to do what the Lord wants me to do?

In response to Joseph Smith’s prayer of pleading from the Liberty Jail. the Lord said, “All things shall give you experience and will be for your good.” Can I think that my experiences are exempt from that promise? Joseph’s limitations were different from mine. He was kept from “doing” by walls and bars and the evil of his captors. I am often held captive by the weakness of my body. But both conditions seem to hinder moving ahead in service to the Lord.

What if, instead of obstacles, all limitations are part of the tutoring process, part of the humbling process, part of the refining process that make us more fit to do the work He has assigned us? Joseph was a different man when he emerged from Liberty Jail. Deeper, stronger, more humble, more aware of the Lord’s constant care in spite of circumstances. I am a different woman when, after all I can do, I accept life on the Lord’s terms and trust the Lord’s plan for me.

When I expressed this idea to my friend Becky, who is greatly limited by health problems, she replied, “Thanks for your reassurance about bodies being equal to tasks by the GRACE of God’s own choosing. Just the other day I read a message that said, ‘I am God. I plan and pick the things you should be doing… NOT YOU.'”

Another friend plagued with health problems and feeling guilty and frustrated about not being able to do all the wonderful things she desired, was blown away by the idea that her mission was not likely to be all the things she couldn’t do because of her physical limitations – but something related to what she had learned because of them!

Neal Maxwell suggests we learn from “the wisdom of Alma, when he said we ought to be content with things that God has allotted to each of us (Alma 29:3-4). If, indeed, the things allotted to each were divinely customized according to our ability and capacity, then for us to seek to wrench ourselves free of every schooling circumstance in mortality is to tear ourselves away from matched opportunities. It is to go against divine wisdom, wisdom in which we may once have concurred before we came here and to which we once gave assent (Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are , p. 31).

In regard to this concept, someone said, “I think we should do all we can to improve our health, but not ‘whine’ to the Lord to remove the challenge. Ask for strength, yes; ask for relief, yes; [even ask for healing] but always end our asking with ‘Thy will be done.'”

Long-range Perspective

One reader, Mary Steed, wrote,

Before I had this illness of CFIDS I felt I had a great identity in my work and personal life. Then the illness came and almost no identity was present. [I couldn’t do anything, and] I had to rely totally on my husband of just a few months physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically ? and give my total trust to him.  I also had to rely on the Spirit because all the doctors (and there were many) were certain I was just mentally ill and faking.  Come to find out, hardly any doctor recognized this illness and those that did, did not know what to do about it.  The Spirit guided me and my husband in many instances so I/we could move forward without doctors.  We both prayed much regarding this illness, and realized often that much patience is required in “waiting on the Lord.” I am still being guided in regard to my illness to this very day. Heavenly Father let us know that the illness was allowed so both of us could learn and have experience.  It has taken me 16 years to come to a new strong identity even though I still have the debilitating condition of CFIDS… But on this end of those years I am stronger spiritually; and the physical, mental, emotional and psychological are getting stronger. My struggles are still great and I still am learning but I have great trust in Heavenly Father.  And so, ‘building on the rock’ continues daily for me.

A Different Kind of Strength – the Strength to Overcome

I have often said, “I’m so wimpy I never would have made it as a pioneer. I’m awe-struck at the strength it must have taken to walk across the plains.” Elder  Neal A .Maxwell gave me a new perspective on this whole issue. He wrote,

Though we have rightly applauded our ancestors for their spiritual achievements. those of us who prevail today will have done no small thing. The special spirits who have been reserved to live in this time of challenges and who overcome will one day be praised for their stamina by those who pulled handcarts (Notwithstanding My Weakness, p.18).

How do we overcome? How do we rise above spiritual and physical challenges to become who the Lord intends us to be? Though individual answers may vary significantly, one underlying principle is universal. Turning to the Lord and building our foundation on the Rock of His love.

Pain into Pearls

Sean Brotherson wrote,

In life, Christ offers us the opportunity to transform experiences of pain into pearls of discipleship as we seek comfort and guidance in a relationship with Him… It is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and seeking to come unto Him and to know Him, that enables us to learn and understand that Christ’s atoning sacrifice will provide for all facets and possibilities of our hurt or pain.  The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ is all-encompassing relative to the pain or suffering of any individual or human being.  It is simply a matter of learning to love Him and turning in His direction and moving towards Him (“Faith in Life’s Storms,” Meridian Magazine).

Even God bases his identity on who He is more than what He does. He is the great I AM, not the great I DO. As we move closer to Him, trust His purposes completely, and focus more attention on being than doing, His Spirit will comfort and strengthen us through all the ills and trials of life.