Two thousand and nine to 2019 was a decade of losing my self. It was the beginning of an unexpected and priceless spiritual liberation. I am still on this journey today.
Deep inside my life, I have found a need to be better than others. I’d like to see this as innocent, as me simply wanting to work hard, be my best, and do valuable things. But I think there are deeper and darker roots to my perfectionism. It comes down to me feeling better about myself if I feel better than others — trying harder, doing more, perhaps being more “faithful.”
As I look back on the last decade of my life, I’m seeing that God sent me on an extended identity crisis that is slowly deconstructing this need to be better than others. And this is enabling me to be with and for others as equals with new empathy and intimacy. Unexpectedly, my identity crisis is leading to my liberation. Something that has felt excruciatingly painful is giving birth to new life.
Perhaps my first identity was as a pastor and church leader. I loved the church and devoted my life to it with relentless passion. But then in 2009, my church in Addis excluded me over a disagreement about my relationship with Lily because she wasn’t a member and didn’t “submit” to my church’s leaders. Then in 2010, it became clear that my church in Chicago wouldn’t invite me back to have any leadership role because of the break in Addis.
All the compliments about my worship leading, my prayers, my insightful sermons — they were all silenced. I wasn’t leading public worship, prayers, or sermons anymore. I was just another person in the crowd, and I felt homeless. I could no longer hang my identity on being a pastor and the group identity it brought.
Then in 2010, I started a PhD program at the University of Chicago and began the journey of becoming a professor. My students at Wheaton College would consistently write on my teaching evaluations that my courses were the best they had taken and changed their lives. They would ask for my lectures, meet with me in my office, and affirm my worth as a mentor. My teaching was recognized by UChicago and evaluated as “superb” by the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology.
But then in 2018, another unexpected transition began: I didn’t feel comfortable as a professor anymore. I felt like God was leading me out of the classroom and into another sphere of public life that would cross more boundaries and build more bridges in the face of societal upheaval in Ethiopia. I could no longer identify myself as a professor with my own office, classroom, and institutional belonging. I was homeless again.
Two thousand and nineteen was my hardest year. I felt like a volcanic cry of distress was erupting inside me, like an ocean of tears was drowning my soul. I feared that I was falling apart, dying, becoming nothing but a memory of the past in pain, loss, and fear.
Out of these many months of dying and healing, I started the Neighbor-Love Movement in 2019 with Lily and my partner Dr Tekalign Nega. But in NLM, I wasn’t and never will be the public face or prominent voice of our work. I write, teach, mentor, and try to love as my life’s work with our team. With a global pandemic, civil war, and a humanitarian crisis roiling in Ethiopia, we feel the vulnerability of our work every day.
Who am I? How do I measure up with others? Am I still at the top?
My identity crises have led me to an unfolding liberation that is still in its beginning stages: I no longer want to be better than anyone else. I want to be who I am and do what God gives with and for others being and doing who they are. I don’t want superiority to have any role in my relationships, the work I do, or my understanding of myself.
Further, I want the root of superiority to be uprooted from the soil of my life entirely — as a White American man, as an evangelical Christian, as all the different identities I could describe or seek to pin to my self. This desire to be superior to others is the root of our racial, social, and political conflict and death.
As I reflect on 2009 to 2019 and still to this day, I don’t wish identity crisis for anyone. But I’ve found that identity crises can be liberating and part of our essential vocation. They can excavate and expose those poisonous but powerful desires that attach themselves to our identities and our deepest loves. As such, an extended identity crisis can be a precious opportunity for self-discovery, healing, and transformation.
In The Human Condition, Thomas Keating writes, “To bring oneself to nothing — no thing — is to cease to identify with the tyranny of our emotional programs for happiness and the limitations of our cultural conditioning… As long as we are identified with some role or persona, we are not free to manifest the purity of God’s presence. Part of life is the process of dropping whatever role, however worthy, you identified with… When you have been liberated from them all, you are in a space that is both empty of self and full of God” (41-42, 44).
This space frightens me. But I find Keating’s insight to be intensely true, and I want to move more deeply into it. This self-emptying is painful. The shedding of the false self, with its defining roles and comparisons with others, can feel like dying. But it opens this space full of God. This presence free of superiority is the home where togetherness, honesty, and trust can flourish.
My church crisis liberated me to practice the presence of God everywhere with everyone. The world became my church, everyday life my liturgy of worship, my neighbor my brother and sister.
My academic crisis liberated me to see everyone everywhere as my teacher. The world became my classroom, everyday life my discipline of learning.
Now the work of neighbor-love is taking me deeper and deeper into attention, empathy, and the practice of love rather than a fixed identity with increasing power.
I’m discovering that the spiritual life is a painful liberation. But it is a liberation, and God’s presence is real. Let us lose our superiority and find ourselves walking, suffering, hoping, and loving together as God’s children with one another as everlasting neighbors in unconditional love.
We are neither more nor less than one another. Neither are we the same. But we are equal in precious value, and we can only be liberated together. As my friend’s step-dad says, “I’m not better than you.”