Personal Identity

To completely realize our purpose in life we must first find our eternal identity

Woman playing flute

We frequently hear questions like the following: Why was I born? What am I doing here? What’s life all about? Is there any purpose in my life? What should I be doing? Will I ever get it right?”

Other familiar comments are: For all the good I’m doing I might as well be dead. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I really do not have a chance to succeed - I was brought up the hard way.

brick road

A 1960’s hippie in New York was anonymously quoted as saying, “I wish I was a Fifth Avenue bus. It knows where it’s going. I don’t.”

Our friends who live by the values of the world answer these questions and observations in a variety of ways. Some just say, “Well, there is nothing I can do about it - I will just go with the flow.” Others seek consolation in such things as alcohol and drug abuse; temporary alliances with others who share their frustrated outlook; retreat into binge television and social media consumption; isolation; self–pity; and too often despair, anxiety and hopelessness which add little to a sense of fulfilment.

Potato sac race

In the absence of any overarching rationale for self-development and approval, such reactions may seem to be semi-rational and contribute to the demoralized perspective that these thoughts generally produce.

An academic approach

One academic approach to these questions of life’s meaning is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see footnotes 1 and 2).

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s theory says that all humans share the same types of needs, and that these categories of needs have a hierarchy. Loosely speaking, this hierarchy goes from the basic things we need for survival through a sense of fulfilling our potential and finding our purpose in life.

The hierarchy is important as, from a motivational perspective, it acts as a ladder. What this means is that individuals must have fully met their needs at their current level within the pyramid, before they are motivated by achieving the needs of the next level up. Put more bluntly, an individual who is struggling to put a roof over his head will focus on that before exploring his true calling in life.

Parents with child

Level 1: Physiological Needs

These are our survival needs, and the first things we need to achieve before we move on towards more complex and aspirational needs in life. These physiological needs include physical requirements like sleep, food, water, shelter and clothing.

Level 2: Safety Needs

Safety first. Oh wait! Safety is second.

Fundamentally these safety needs are about removing risk from life and helping individuals maintain their physiological needs into the future. Safety needs include physical and emotional security, housing beyond the most basic shelters, health and financial security.

Level 3: Social Belonging

Humans are social beings and the need for social belonging is strong in most people. Once humans have met their basic physical and safety needs they start to pursue things like family relationships, friendships, community relationships, and the sense of acceptance.

Young girls

Level 4: Self-esteem

Next comes a focus on self. These needs are about satisfying the ego and being valued. At the lower level, individuals seek to achieve status, respect and recognition from others. At the higher level, they seek these things from themselves.

Level 5: Self-actualization

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that after the other needs have been obtained the ultimate need is that of self-actualization. This slightly clunky phrase simply means that humans want to feel that they are fulfilling their potentials and making the most of their abilities.

Later in life Maslow added a further stage which he called transcendence, which was about giving oneself to something beyond oneself. This could be in the form of altruism or spirituality.

It should be noted that the Maslow pyramid rests on the premise that the most basic needs of man are centered on self. His higher levels introduce the concept of interdependence with others and the importance of other people, but unfortunately, he did not see the place of Deity as a chief component of men realizing their best selves.

Grandma with Grand child

The Lord’s approach

Without the perspective provided by the gospel of Jesus Christ, such approaches to finding meaning in life are somewhat understandable, if not wholly justified. Many wander among the numerous popular philosophies competing for attention, and remain unsatisfied.

The Lord provides a positive perspective. Two children’s Primary songs outline doctrines that can launch us onto an eternal pathway. The first song is “I Am a Child of God” (Hymns, no. 301). The doctrine that each of us is truly a member of God’s eternal family, once it has been fully understood, accepted, and acted upon, provides a focus for the activities that characterize our lives that cannot be achieved through any other philosophical approach to the meaning of life.

The second song is “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” (Children’s Songbook, 78-79). Once our direction has been shaped by our knowledge of who we really are, namely a son or a daughter of God, this song provides a description of the attributes and actions we must pursue to cement our status with Him. We must follow His ways, love as He does, listen to the still small voice of conscience, be kind, gentle, always loving and all of the other virtues so thoughtfully expressed in this children’s song.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

This concept is further developed in a talk by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. “Every one of us aspires to a more Christlike life than we often succeed in living. If we admit that honestly and are trying to improve, we are not hypocrites; we are human. . . If we persevere, then somewhere in eternity our refinement will be finished and complete” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Be Ye Therefore Perfect - Eventually,” Ensign, November 2017).

The gospel’s eternal pathway leads to the ultimate purpose of life, namely, exaltation in the celestial kingdom of our perfected Father in Heaven, where our joys will be eternally multiplied - the ultimate realization of our true, eternal personal identity.