It’s a Question of Identity


It’s a Question of Identity by Robynn. Today’s piece is long form so sit back with a cup of tea or coffee. What are you tethered to? Where is your identity anchored?

I distinctly remember the feeling I had when my parents moved away from Pakistan.  It was a powerful sense of being untethered. Suddenly I felt disconnected, unmoored. The feeling I felt when they moved from my childhood home hidden in the dusty lanes of Layyah to a different house a mile or two down the road wasn’t nearly as poignant as the feeling I had when they actually left Pakistan.

I no longer had a reason to return. I no longer had an excuse.  As long as they were there, part of me was explained. With their departure, that explanation no longer made sense.

I’ve just had a relapse of that emotion. Only this time it feels stronger and more alienating.

We’ve just had word that the landlords of our house in India where we spent our last 6 years have asked the current tenants to vacate the property. It’s not just a house. When Lowell first happened upon the land it was an overgrown green mass with ruins and a suspicious looking snake pit. Tucked in that was a temple, a bungalow and an ancient little haveli house.  The ancient little haveli house was where we eventually made ourselves at home. It was built right on the banks of the Ganges river. Originally it had no kitchen but we had one made in a former storage room. There was a lovely old mango tree in the center of the courtyard. On the other side of the courtyard we renovated another old storage space into a proper guest room with an attached sitting room. The dilapidated rock structure with the snake pit we helped to cultivate and transform from a place of ruin to a vibrant spot for rest and recovery. Together with a small team of friends who had a heart for it we started an Ashram there—a place of beauty where people could come and meet God.

It’s the only place our kids remember as home in that ancient city. It’s where we went back to on our return trip in December. We were thrilled to see it going on. The couple from Australia who took it over after we made the decision to not return to India have really seen it reach its potential. They’ve had guests come by the hundreds into that space. Travelers from around the globe have found hospitality and beauty there. They’ve found welcome, food, art. Many of them have encountered a Deeper Reality. Some of them have found Jesus.

When I heard they were being asked to leave I felt so very sad. And strangely, I felt again, my soul untethered. My ties to that country that I grew to love have been cut. The explanation of our connection to that place no longer makes sense.

There are so many places we can tie our identities to. Clearly, I’ve anchored part of mine to faraway places where I’ve lived. But if I was completely honest I’d have to admit I’m also tied to my marriage, to my passport, to my sense of humour, to my love of coffee and conversation, to my children. Others might say they’re tied to their work, their calling, their sexual orientation, their politics, their cause, their style, their wardrobe. These alliances are all so fragile. One phone call can sever those connections. One confrontation and your identity is challenged. One piece of bad news, one email, one knock on the door and suddenly you find yourself, as I found myself earlier this week, untethered. Unfastened. Insecure.

It’s like I’m having this odd out-of-body experience and I see myself floating. It doesn’t make me feel free or bouyant….it feels scary, unsettling, disconcerting.

I remember a conversation I had with a young TCK. She was adopted when she was tiny. Indian by birth, American by adoption, she was raised in part in India but then her family moved mid-childhood to Europe where she spent the rest of her growing up years. When we talked she was thinking about having a DNA test done. She wanted to know where in India she was from.  I felt so sad for her. A DNA test wasn’t going to give her the answers she longed for. She wanted to know who she was. She wanted to know where to tie her identity threads to. Where should she tether herself? A DNA test couldn’t give her those answers. The DNA test wouldn’t know her story.

On Sunday at church a woman, who we love, approached Lowell to ask him a question. She had just read Frank Schaeffer’s book, “Sex, Mom and God”. Deeply troubled, she wanted Lowell’s help in understanding how Schaeffer, the son of missionary Francis and Edith Schaeffer, could deviate so from the God of his childhood. While I’ve never read the book, Lowell’s comment to me as we talked about it, intrigued me, “It seems to me Frank Schaeffer never identified himself with Christ. He identified himself with radical thinking or with a type of evangelicalism perhaps.” – In Lowell’s mind, the younger Schaeffer, never seemed to tether his identity to Jesus.

It is certainly okay for me to grieve the loss of those places: my childhood Layyah; my adulthood home on the banks of the Ganges. The places mattered to me. They were part of my formation. I grew up in Layyah. I grew up more in Varanasi. Pieces of me are left buried in the soil in the both of those precious terrains. Grieve it, I have. Grieve it, I must.

But I suppose it’s a case of identity. I think I need to reevaluate where I have tethered my identity. It is true that I’m married, I have three children, I have a great sense of humour (at least I crack myself up at regular intervals!). I love to travel. I’ve lived longer abroad than I have in my passport country. But when I completely identify myself by those things I flounder.As hard as it is, as nebulous as it seems, I firmly believe I need to connect and reconnect myself daily to the One Firm Place, the Changeless Christ, to Jesus my Rock and Redeemer. Knowing who I am to him and in him anchors me. That truth connects me firmly, fiercely to what is true. It’s really the only thing I know for certain.

On December 27, 2013, two Russian cosmonauts left the safety of the International Space Station. Their mission was to attach two cameras to the outside of the Space Station. That particular amble outside broke the record for the Russian’s longest spacewalk. Watching it on the TV, with our bottoms firmly in our seats and our feet on the planet, was an agonizing experience. They moved slowly, carefully. They had large hooks that they moved to secure metal loops to keep themselves attached to the space station. Becoming detached was a life or death reality for them. Both Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazansky had experience at these things. They didn’t lose their sense of humour as they worked. Methodically they connected their hooks to the loops. They worked. They detached the hooks, one at a time, carefully reattaching each one before moving on. It was painfully slow but they knew who they were in the moment. They knew what their purpose was. They knew what they were connected to.

Down to earth, practically, it still feels so fragile and so uncertain. I have to make this choice, while seemingly afloat, by faith, to reattach my sense of self, my core, my soul, to what is unchanging, to what is certain, to what is true.  Jesus said it himself in the gospel according to St John, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” Many read this as a recipe for fruit. How do I make fruit? I remain in the vine.  In my mind, it’s not about the fruit, it’s about the attachment. We are connected. We belong. We are stuck to something eternal, permanent, fixed.

Apart from him we can do nothing.

Nothing but falter and float– flailing and unfastened.

So by faith I move, ever-so-slowly, through my grief, one hook at a time—attached, connected, harnassed–praying to feel more tethered than I do. Apart from him I can do nothing. Even in him I can’t do much but grieve very slowly.

So we ask again – what are you tethered to? When have you felt untethered? 



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10 thoughts on “It’s a Question of Identity

  1. It is true that our identity is in Christ. Nothing can move us if we trust in Him.

    I feel so bad for the girl, but I totally understand though.

    When you are desperately trying to figure out who you are you are not going to stop looking for ways to find answers to it.


  2. Robynn, You reach me like the most inspiring devotion. Perhaps you have a way of meeting us where we are on this journey of life. The circumstances and country are different, but the concepts, the feeling, and the end sum are the same. Nothing could be more meaningful to me than “when my parents moved away… as long as they were there…part of me was explained. ” Yet I’ve refused to give up entirely on “the explanation”.

    Thank you for the thought about Who we are tethered to, who we are abiding in (abide in the vine, not just thinking about the fruit but the connection). One sermon talked about setting the anchor, or actually making headway by anchoring, pulling, then anchoring again, in a storm (I can’t find the technical term right now) That imagery stuck with me.

    Thank you for blessing us in this way. Hmm. I wish I could have visited that old house, it sounded like it was designed by your family to be a true refuge. It reminds me of the homes of our truly Christian friends growing up.

    The spiritual and the practical, the ephemeral and the eternal, and the extravagant and the pragmatic are married in your writings. It is hard to deny how much your writings are inspired.


  3. Awesome post, Robynn! I’m very happy to find others with Third Culture backgrounds who share similar views on culture and identity. Understanding and knowing who I am and where I fit in has been something I’ve struggled with for all my life. This post is incredibly relatable to me :) I wrote about similar topics surrounding culture and identity in one of my posts. If you have time to spare, please take a look and tell me what you think!


    1. Thank you Preston for reading this and commenting! I went over to your blog and read your piece. I especially loved your conclusion: “…. Nothing is ordinary”! I would love to sit down for coffee and a long chat. You have stories to tell! And I would love to hear them. Thanks again for your comments.


  4. Robynn, this is an excellent piece. As a “Third Culture Adult” I went through this many times. Certainly I felt firmly rooted in my home town, my church, my family when I was growing up. In my memory we moved once, across town, and I was already in High School, so knew the kids in my new neighborhood and didn’t even have to change schools. You would think that coming back from Pakistan to live in that same house with my then widowed Mom would feel like coming home. But I was too changed. I had pulled up those roots when we left for Pakistan. They were very much loosened when I went to college and then more when I got married.
    In Pakistan we moved many times. In the last city, Shikarpur we lived for 11 years. Even there we lived in 3 different houses. In Murree we never lived more than 2 or 3 summers in the same place.
    Several years ago Dan and Carol created a wall hanging for us with all the places we had lived listed around the edges. In the middle there is an applique of a house in Sindhi ajrak (a type of batik unique to Sindh) and around the house the words: “Home is where God puts us”. I think of the verses in Hebrews 11:13, “They acknowledged that they were pilgrims and strangers on earth.” No place on this earth can be a real home to anyone who truly knows God and understands that our real home is with Him. Once we acknowledge that we are on the way to adjusting, adapting and living joyfully wherever God sends us
    A plus to living this kind of pilgrim life is that we can get very good at making every new place home in a very short while, by God’s grace!


    1. Auntie Polly— once again your words are full of wisdom and insight. I love the picture of us being at home in God…. He never moves or changes. Finding ourselves at home there is the starting place to being tethered to Him. Home is where are hearts are—when our hearts are at home in him!


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