The Guideposts senior editor shares how one can figure out who they are.
You find reasons to believe in the unlikeliest places. I recently found one in a spy movie. My wife Kate and I were watching The Bourne Supremacy the other night. It stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a trained CIA assassin who loses his memory and has to piece his identity back together while fending off government agents who think he has become a threat to national security.
It’s kind of a zany premise. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized Jason Bourne’s predicament is everyone’s predicament. No, most of us are not trained killers (I hope!), nor have we lost our memory. But we all struggle with that supreme challenge—figuring out who we are, and doing so in a kind of race against the clock.
I use that word clock deliberately. For one of the most interesting things about The Bourne Supremacy, along with the other two Jason Bourne movies (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum), is that they are not structured like most movies. They don’t move cleanly from beginning to end. Their timeline is chopped up, as it would be for anyone whose lost memories lie around them like so many shards of glass.
Actually, that chopping up is a trademark of the movie’s screenwriter, Tony Gilroy (subject of a recent fascinating New Yorker profile), whose favorite narrative device is what he calls a reversal—a moment in the movie when some new detail comes into view that utterly changes every assumption you’ve been holding about the story.
Gilroy’s movies can be disorienting. But I think that’s their point. Life, too, is disorienting. Time is disorienting. Our identities are disorienting. Or at least they should be if we’re thinking about them carefully.
Most of us, myself included, like to assume that our lives proceed in a nice, neat narrative. We’re born, we grow up, we find jobs, we raise families, we grow old, we die. One thing leads to the next. We learn lessons and apply them. The past causes the present.
Unfortunately, that’s a very misguided way to think. It leads to all sorts of problems, not least theological conundrums that have bedeviled people for centuries. Questions like, how we can have free will if God already knows what will happen to us? Or, why God doesn’t intervene to change the story of our lives when something bad is about to happen?
Those questions assume our lives are like a children’s storybook, moving along a tight line of time. But our lives aren’t like that. They’re more like a Tony Gilroy movie. They have to be seen as a whole before their meaning becomes apparent. Small, out-of-the-way details suddenly loom to crucial importance. Events turn into reversals, moments that cause us to reinterpret everything we’d ever thought.
Most of all, we ourselves are not simply the sum total of the minutes we've been alive. We are something larger. Our identities, like Jason Bourne’s, are complex wholes we are only beginning to live into. In my opinion, God is the only one who knows just what those identities are. God has known them from the beginning and yearns desperately for us to realize them.
We, unfortunately, would rather be writing our own storybooks. We like the control of that. The predictability. We can imagine nothing worse than waking up in Jason Bourne’s shoes—knowing there is far more to our lives than what we’ve currently got, but knowing as well that it will take all our smarts and strength to figure out just what that more is.
Of course, the alternative, the storybook, is pretty bland in the end. That’s why God doesn’t want us to rest there. We make poor authors of our own lives. I think I’d rather wake up like Jason Bourne. It’s a scary prospect, turning my life over like that. But at least I’d be awake.
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at [email protected].