Identity Lens / Identity Lends

All of us see life through a lens. A lens that we adjust to bring our life picture into—or sometimes out of—focus. At least it’s something I noticed when working registration at a recent Adoption Center matching event.

As families, youth, and their workers arrived at registration, what struck me first was the blend of timidity and hope in their faces. It stands to reason that there would be so much raw emotion on display. The kids—even those who have attended previous events in the hopes of finding their forever family—certainly have hope, but until the ice is broken, most start the day with cautious reserve. Perhaps they start out adjusting their lens to blur the picture of their expectations.

They might have asked themselves how much of their identity they need to share with these families and how to share it. And yet the families probably wonder how, in such a short amount of time, they can most effectively teach the kids about who they are and what they have to offer.

One consolation: no one needed to worry about revealing their “identity” with regards to adoption. But I can imagine it must not be like that in everyday life.

What goes through the minds and emotions of the youth in care? Who are they? How do they see themselves? How do they identify themselves? With what do they identify? They might not admit to classmates that they are in foster care or talk with their peers about their hope of being adopted. And even the families who have chosen the path of adoption may have had to quietly wrestle with infertility or bias to come to that point, and therefore not freely speak much about their “identity.”

So this silence begs the question: through what lens do they see themselves? How do they identify themselves?

Security officers ask to see our proof of identification at the airport or public building. Through the lens of what they see when they look at us and the identification we provide, they either stop us or allow us to pass through.

But ID “lenses” give limited information—descriptions of our eye and hair color, whether we need corrective lenses, our birthplace or our address. Our ID might have our signature and possibly an impossible un-likeness of ourselves that we would rather cover up with our thumb and a slight of hand (or is that just me?). Such “identification” does not suffice when we want people to know something more about the real us. For that, we use words or labels that often bridge our association with someone—something—we have in common.

When we are young, we might proudly (or perhaps despairingly) claim, “I go to pre-school” or “I am in kindergarten” or “I am a middle school student” and later might exclaim with a bit more confidence that we are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, a graduate student, or even a Ph.D.

Growing, becoming new people, accepting ourselves and others does change us. Those changes become part of our identity. And, through sharpening the focus of our identity, we inadvertently add new lenses—such as patience or tolerance—through which we see our self and our world.

When we identify as “being” something—a member of a club, association, fraternity, or group—we are provided yet another lens. By sharing our identity lenses, we hope to give others a way through which they will know more about us without the need for a lot of explanation.

What about a child in foster care? A teen who has been in the limbo of foster care for many years? What descriptive words would they use? How easy would anyone find to identify one’s self as “a potential adoptee” or “a waiting child.” Those words are an identity lens that does not show a complete picture.

Waiting children are like everyone else: identity is somewhat tenuous. How much do any of us explain about the real “us?” How much do we need to explain? I am sure it is much more comfortable to stay with identifiers like our favorite sports teams and what we want to be when we grow up. And that is a great beginning.

But each of us also wants to go deeper with some people. Our adopted daughter says whenever she meets and discovers the person is an adoptee—whatever their age—she feels an unspoken bond. She adjusts her identity lens based on the common thread. My own identity lens? For over a quarter of a century I have looked at life through the lens of an adoptive parent. Like our daughter, I feel an unspoken commonality (and, I would have to say, relief, in not having to explain but rather having the joy to share stories) when I meet other adoptive parents or adoptees. It is a bond in which there is a silent knowingness.

Perhaps that is what the youth and families attending felt, too. These events give them the chance not to have to explain everything. Their ID badge, as it were, was simply being there. By the end of the event, there was so much more hope and much less timidity in the faces of the kids and the families (and even on faces of the youth workers). It seemed like during the activities of the day, everyone had adjusted their lenses. Some probably even had the joy of sharing their stories with each other. Maybe this is a point as a lesson for us all: how much we look through our life “identity lenses” and base our reaction to and treatment of others on what we see?

Identity lenses can help us sharpen our insights from both our uniqueness and our differences, and help us know ourselves better by discovering our points of wonder as well as our points of fear. But we should realize they can also block us from getting to know someone better when we use our lens of prejudice for certain labels or categories before we probe more deeply.

“Identity lenses” len(d)s us chances to discover our tolerances but also to be evermore open, accepting and loving. We need to remember that we can choose the shutter speed and when to sharpen or blur the focus and even when we use a close up or wide-angle lens.