Spiritual identity is dependent on a “narrative”. The story draws upon historical truth but is never meant (or able) to provide a completely accurate, factual account of history. It does, however, provide meaning. This account of spiritual identity follows closely the model laid out by Dan McAdams, the most renowned expert on identity since Erikson. For McAdams, identity is embedded in personality and memory. But it‘s more than this. Identity is the mythical story you create which helps explain our behaviors, experiences, and relationships. We have many versions. It can be the superficial stuff you tell strangers at a party. It can be the naked honesty of conversation with your spouse at the end of a difficult day.
Whether the issue is moral identity or ethnic identity or whatever, what‘s critical is the meaning we attribute to this story, what it means to the self, and how the narrative shapes our behavior into the future.
We are able to envision ourselves in the future contingent upon successful integration of episodes and experiences from the past. To the extent we integrate episodes and experiences into the self, we are able to maintain a consistent identity.
The importance of characteristic adaptations or goals to spiritual identity is considerable, yet these are somewhat less transparent than traits. We do not encounter self-help books with characteristic adaptations in the title, even though many such books are about goal-oriented processes (improve your marriage, become a successful leader, manage anxiety).
One researcher observed that traits pertain to the ―having side of personality whereas characteristic adaptations (goals) are related to the ―doing side. The goals we construct are influenced by trait knowledge. Goals extend such knowledge into practice. They contain effects of traits, informing value judgments of moral or religious importance.
Goals of compassion, service, and spiritual success come alive through unique experiences and associations recounted through their unique narratives.
If, then, spiritual identity is storied, it seems imperative we should listen carefully to people regarding the stories they tell of their experiences—and with particular attention to the spiritual meaning found in the stories themselves. And if the spiritual identity stories have evolved within particular cultural and faith traditions, then we need to be aware of how the language of those stories contains symbols with meanings derived from those traditions.
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