What if our identity isn’t as transparent and secure as we think? Could it be that we use possessions as props in order to project our ‘ideal self’? If your initial reaction is incredulous, than you and I share a common instinct. But a few months ago I encountered the identity façade I had built and it reshaped my perspective.
The spring cleaning compulsion hits at unexpected times. After nearly five years of marriage, I thought my relationship had developed immunity to such a disease. Last spring, however, my wife caught an acute case.
As a newfound spring cleaning passion invigorated her, I was conscripted into forced labor for a week’s worth of evenings. While I assumed this work would be uneventful – just throw away old stuff, right? – the removal of possessions from my life imposed more complicated emotions than expected.
We started with dressers and the closet going through each item of clothing and making large piles of “keep” “give away” and “throw away”. The expectation apparently being that “keep” had to be the smallest stack of the three. The next major event after clothing was cleaning out my study. She agreed that I could sort through my books and I – begrudgingly – promised a dramatic scale down.
Our bookshelf held many remnants from our college days and my graduate work; a safe harbor for all types of books. On my shelf they found job security and a warm home–they knew I would never throw them away. Yet the day had come, so books I wouldn’t need to touch again, or “could easily find access to” (my wife’s favorite line during the purge) made the jump from shelf to box first.
After the first few ’easy’ choices, cleaning out my used books became a more complicated process than expected. I realized each of those used books that I tried to drop into the box tugged on me. Each book sparked a different kind of emotion.
Some books that I had read made me feel smart to have them displayed on my shelf.
Others were books I wanted to read, that made me feel smart to have them on my reading list and displayed.
Another book I bought for $20 three years ago and I still haven’t read it. Now it sparks guilt pains to drop it into a donation box and realize the sunk costs.
As I stared at a growing pile of books now off the shelf and in boxes, I grieved the enormous amounts of knowledge and stories that I was giving away or selling.
Each of those books pulled different strings inside my soul. I felt as through I were losing past knowledge, future knowledge, and (mostly) the status that comes with owning and having read a lot of books. The people I admired most growing up (professors or pastors) have offices overflowing with books.
I completed the purge, but had to sit down afterwards and process what just happened. Sorting through clothing came easier for me, but the books had firmer grips on my identity.
As I honestly looked at myself each of those books were just props for a false self-identity I worked hard to maintain. I want the appearance of an academic, intellectual, or curious person. Or, I am trying to cover my guilt by hanging on to long lost goals instead of acknowledging the sunk costs.
“Status” stuff is sticky and it’s tough to get rid of. If I took a step back and looked around my life, books wouldn’t be the only objects I use to prop up a self-image. I have used a car, home, or bank account to help me feel secure. A job to make me feel useful. A diploma to show me I am valuable or intelligent.
This bookshelf purge helped me strip away false identities and nudge me to a more realistic self-acknowledgment.
I am not the books I read. I am not the books I want to read.
Yet, part of our corrupt human hearts compels us to surround ourselves with props that hold up a false self-image. We try to project a certain status level through our possessions and behavior in order to forget the brokenness that hides beneath the surface. The more we can create a forged self-perception – and other people’s perception of us – the less we have to look at our sinful hearts.
A used bookshelf is just one area that I have built a false status symbol in my life. And a spring cleaning adventure reminded me that Jesus heals my brokenness – not a shelf full of books.