Friends United Meeting


Quaker Life
September 1998

Adopted Children of God

By Joe Kelly

Like most professionals working in the field of counseling psychology I have had a lot of contact with individuals who were adopted early in life. Extensive research points out that all adopted children struggle with being adopted. The struggle may be very open and obvious, or well hidden and more subtle. Additionally, adopted individuals tend to revisit these issues of struggle again and again as they progress through the normal stages of life. These struggles almost always take the form of some kind of identity crisis.

The term "identity crisis" was made famous by the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson who described it as the time during adolescence when young people begin to wonder, "Who am I?" This question goes further than "Who am I now?" but also includes "Who will I become?" Before Erikson died (in his mid 80's) he wrote that individuals tend to experience identity crises throughout their life right up to the end.

In their book, On Being Adopted, Brodzinsky, Schechter & Henig state, "The notion of identity is not as simple as Erikson's popularizers would have us believe. Most of us don't achieve a uniform identity with a capital I, but instead come to think of ourselves as different 'I's' in different contexts. We might have an occupational identity, a sexual identity, a religious identity, an identity having to do with interpersonal commitments or basic values or other aspects of our lives."

To achieve an identity, an individual must integrate these various aspects of the self with each other over different points in time. For the adoptee, there's another element, too. The self as a family member is an important component of identity, but the adoptee has two families: the one she knows and the one she doesn't know. To ask, "Who am I really? is to ask a question to which there is often no good answer...."

As I read about these issues for adopted individuals I sat back and experienced a flood of memories of my early years in the church. I was not raised in the church and the family I grew up in was, and still is, hostile to organized religion. I grew up with that mind-set. When I had a personal experience of the living one we call God I decided to see if the church had anything to offer. My early experience of the church was full of anxiety, confusion and wonder. It was a different world with a different language. There were people of immense tenderness and love and others with a rigid black-and-white idea of the world and of God

In those early years I struggled to fit in. I was being asked to join a new family, to become an adoptee. To do this I was going to have to turn my back on much of the old family, at least spiritually. I struggled to find people with whom I could communicate and, by the grace of God, I found some. I went to my first yearly meeting and was overwhelmed by T. Canby Jones speaking in the power of the Spirit. Yet there were other aspects of this new family of mine that I clearly did not fit into. How could this work? How could I ever hope to be accepted by these "good" people who had been a part of the church for their whole lives?

Throughout Paul's letters he is constantly defending his right to be considered an equal member of the family of apostles. He claims this right according to the power of his experiences. During my own recording process I was often troubled by the amount of emphasis various groups gave to my conversion experience. I was asked to describe it and write about it over and over. There was nothing wrong with the question, but I felt as if I had to earn my right into the family. How difficult this must be for those whose conversion was more subtle and less dramatic than mine. Somehow I believe that the scripture says that Jesus earned our right onto the family for us.

James Marcia, of Simon Fraser University, points out that the ideal resolution of the identity issue is for the individual to confront the issue of who he or she is, explore alternatives, and commit to a particular set of values. Various problems may occur during the resolution. The confrontation may be incomplete, the exploration of alternatives may be halfhearted, or the commitment may be delayed or unsuccessful. Someone with a good deal more sense described it as the hard ground, the brambles and the good ground.

Marcia considers the different ways of coping with identity crisis to essentially fall into four different categories:

"1. Identity achievement. This occurs when an individual consciously experiences a crisis and tries to resolve it by exploring alternative roles. The identity achiever asks herself, 'what do I believe in?' and then tries on different values and ideologies. After experimenting, she is ready to make a commitment to a particular identity and a particular set of values. This usually won't occur until after adolescence; most people who will experience identity achievement do so beginning in the college years."

I remember with a smile my early struggle through the maze of Christian theology. What does this mean? Could I possibly believe this? One eye on the scripture and one eye over my shoulder for what my new family might think of my efforts. One eye on the old family to gauge their reaction. One ear listening to the still, small voice which was not as still or as quiet as it had been. I remember I had a lot of headaches in those days. These were anxious times. Would I possibly ever be judged worthy of this new family?

"2. Moratorium. The individual in moratorium also confronts questions such as 'What do I believe in?' But for various reasons she has yet to achieve any resolution or to commit herself to a particular path. Being in moratorium is not a long-term solution, since to remain in crisis is inherently destabilizing and uncomfortable. Eventually, the person in moratorium will move on to either identity diffusion (explained below) or, more successfully, identity achievement."

My heart goes out to all those I know who cannot find a family in which they feel they fit. They leap from church to church, group to group, theology to theology, with little or no resolution. Just the other day I overheard someone saying with a laugh, "I belong to a group that gets together on Sunday morning that really doesn't believe in anything, and we don't want any leaders, but we get together and talk." There are masses of people wandering through the theological jungle alone because they can find no family that will be theirs. We, of course, are all willing to adopt them, if they sound like us and look like us. I often think about what would have happened to me if Christ thought like that.

"3. Identity foreclosure. This individual looks as though she has achieved a solid identity, since she has made a commitment to a set of values, a career path, or a role in life. But this commitment occurs prematurely, before the person has had a chance to experiment with alternatives. An actual 'identity crisis' was never recognized or confronted; the individual has taken on an identity the way she would buy an off the rack suit of clothes. The classic example of identity foreclosure is the young person who goes into the family business not because she's thought about it but because it's always been assumed that she would."

The implications for identity foreclosure in a religious sense are clear. I think sadly of those people who have asked me over the years, "Just tell us what to believe." I can't tell anyone what to believe. What would happen if they obeyed me-which they will not. I can only tell people what and why I believe. That disappoints many and angers some. All of us who want to actively be a part of God's family must search out and follow the Divine voice ourselves.

"4. Identity diffusion. This person not only avoids confronting an identity crisis or seeking out alternatives (as happens in identity foreclosure), but is unable to make a commitment to a particular identity such as a career, a sexual orientation, or a set of moral values. She finds nothing inherently attractive enough to be worthy of even her temporary attention. Identity diffusion comes about because a young person lacks either a support system that would allow her to ask troubling questions or a parent figure sufficiently appealing to identify with. The child moves through adolescence unsure of what she wants, unwilling to confront the options, unable to identify with a nurturing figure because none is available. This is a dynamic process that continually evolves-from evaluation to resolution, from disruption to revaluation-through adolescence into adulthood."

The issues of identity crisis would seem to apply to all believers (all humans as well), with serious implications for both themselves and the church. Just as these issues seem to be more intense in those individuals who are adopted into the biological family, I believe they are more intense in respect to religious identity in those individuals who are adopted into the church in later life by convincement. These individuals may experience a strong desire to fit into the majority mentality and move into identity foreclosure setting the stage for spiritual crisis later. It is also possible that some individuals may continually change groups and personal formulations in an endless, restless seeking.

As an individual who believes he has been directly called by God to pastor all of God's children (all of whom are biological by the way), I feel very strongly about my duty to encourage religious identity achievement. This is a long and rocky process that goes on throughout a lifetime. There are dark periods and light...times when we hear great music and other times when we hear nothing but heavy breathing behind us. If we don't encourage others to partake of the journey and only to act as if they have already arrived, we are in grave danger of encouraging the easy, soft path to the wide gate.

I love this new adopted family of mine. It also terrifies me on a regular basis. I am afraid I will ultimately be rejected by them. I think this is the fear of any adopted child. The frightening thing is how realistic this fear is. We very well may be rejected by our adopted family if we do not fit the "mold." The solution is to pray that the "mold" will become, or remain, flexible enough to include us. At the same time we need to remember that ultimately we are children of the living, loving God and this God will never reject us no matter how many adopted families ultimately do.

"Dancing quietly in God's unconditional love," Joseph B. Kelly is pastor of Friends of the Light Meeting in Traverse City, Michigan, and a family therapist in private practice. He is one of Indiana Yearly Meeting's adopted children.

Copyright 2006 by Friends United Meeting.