The Identity Test
Updated: Jun 28
It all began with a late summer's day conversation with my dad. We were in the barn doing some chores when I discussed with him my desire to try out for the basketball team that freshman year of high school. My dad was pushing back, with his usual grin behind his challenging words. “I don’t know what you see in those sports,” he said. “Seems like such a waste of time. There’s no value in sports.”
“But dad,” I objected, “I don’t want to be known as just a bookworm. I want to do sports and be known as an athlete.”
He shook his head and let out a sigh of surrender, and I happily danced away with a manure scraper in hand, knowing dad was on board with me playing sports. Mom couldn’t stop me now. And so began my efforts of building my identity or brand, what people would know me for.
Four years later, I must have succeeded in my tiny one-stoplight northeast Wisconsin town, because I received eager high fives from the kindergarteners in the lunch line. And one day, when I blew a tire driving on Belgian Road on my way to work at the local cheese factory the summer between high school and college, I didn’t even know the farm family’s name whose house I walked up to to find a phone (in the time before cell phones) to call AAA for assistance. Upon answering the door, the farmer’s wife immediately recognized me and swung the door wide open, saying, “You’re one of the Kison girls. Come on in.” I was certain that any notoriety and recognition was due to my athletic endeavors on the basketball court and track documented in our small town newspaper versus my recent graduation as valedictorian..
Fast forward another four years, and there I was, talking to my dad seated at the kitchen table next to my mom, proudly showing him a piece of paper. It was a copy I had made of my very first paycheck as a licensed athletic trainer. I had recently been paid for providing medical coverage for a high school basketball game in suburban Milwaukee, and I had the check to prove it. “See dad,” I said with a glimmer of rebellion in my eye, “I told you sports are valuable. I just got paid to attend a sporting event!” My dad just laughed.
Ten years later in the midst of opening my own physical therapy practice, I recall a little lecture I gave to my oldest daughter McKenzie as I held a Windex bottle scrubbing her bathroom mirror. I was telling her all about branding, and that her behavior was her brand. Just like new patients in Neenah would soon discover that my clinic delivered high quality, patient-centered physical therapy services, a brand is what people know you by. In McKenzie’s world, how she acted in public, whether in school or church, would reflect back on her character, (the old school term for "brand"). My young daughter nodded her head in agreement.
But then something happened. On New Year’s Eve of 2014, I sustained a mild stroke that came seemingly out of nowhere. Suddenly all my physical prowess, like running marathons and hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up again in one day, seemed like miracles when I struggled to walk without a limp and last a full day sitting on a stool working as a physical therapist without my entire left side cramping in pain. Weeks later, my cognition began declining considerably, far more than just some loss of short-term memory from the stroke, and it culminated with me in tears in the McDonald’s drive through as I was unable to form the words to order a Happy Meal, a task I had done dozens of times before. Earlier that day, I had sat in a medical office filling out a one-page medical authorization for release of information, and I couldn’t comprehend anything written on the page. After 10 minutes with tears in my eyes, I walked up to the lady behind the desk and embarrassingly admitted I had no idea what the form said and where I needed to sign.
That afternoon I felt panicked as I thought about all of the cognitive loss. What could I do? What would I do? I was invited to give an hour-long professional presentation at the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Symposium that June. How in the world would I do a presentation in front of hundreds of medical professionals in my present state? Was this it? Was this the end of my illustrious career and successful private practice, defeated by a stroke and on-going cognitive deficits? I hastily scheduled a meeting with my pastor to discuss my fears and deep concerns in a confidential setting. I had no medical explanation for deteriorating cognition. While I could compensate for short term memory loss by writing everything down in the clinic, I couldn’t hide all the new detremients in executive function that made it impossible for me to fulfill the role of mom, much less as a business owner and medical professional.
By the next morning, I was no longer able to eat. I bought a small chocolate shake close to lunchtime, hoping I could get that down my throat. I sipped it slowly, but I didn’t even feel hungry. Later that afternoon right there in the speech therapist’s office, my fear became reality. I was losing the ability to swallow. She gave me a cup of water and asked me to take a small amount, but I only succeeded in coughing incessantly for the next five minutes. I was unable to swallow a drop.
Thankfully, within 48 hours I discovered the source of my new functional losses, and the solution for the adverse side effects of tramadol that I had been suffering from were quickly remedied by no longer taking the drug. But those feelings of vulnerability and weakness plagued me for months.
I remember vividly the day in my adult Sunday school class when it hit me, I had built my identity on the wrong foundation. I believed my intelligence and athletic abilities that God had given me were the attributes that gave value to my life. Just like the Bible parable, I had built the "house" of my identity on sand. On speical skills and abilities that could be taken away in an instant. My athleticism was stolen in minutes that night of the stroke. I could no longer jog more than a block months after working on improving my walking endurance.. And the impact on my cognition had appeared shortly thereafter.
I had made a mistake in understanding what gave meaning and purpose to my life. I had been saved since I was five, so of course God had a hold of my life, and my ticket was punched to heaven. But somewhere along the way, I had demoted my legacy as a daughter of the King to irrelevance in search of one built with my own effort. While they were trophies worth pursuing in the eyes of my post-modern American family, friends, and community, the worth they had given me was fleeting and fragile, sure to fizzle over time with aging or immediately by accident or disease. My house built on the sand had shattered the night of my stroke. In the days that followed, I had been grasping desparately to reclaim even the smallest pieces of wood remaining of the super-functional person I had once been. But despite my frantic efforts, what I was able to slowly rebuild felt unfamiliar and unrecognizable. I felt lost. My self worth was gone.
While I could hide my cognitive deficits over time with vision therapy and workarounds for memory, I knew in my heart I couldn’t, and shouldn’t be rebuilding my identity on the sand. It was time to learn who I was without any of the accolades I had accomplished in my life. I needed to learn, know, and come to authentically believe who I was and whose I was, to give my life meaning that could outlast any threat or destruction of my human condition. My life needed value that would outlast my time on this earth. The only choice I had was to embrace my identity through the eyes of God and reclaim the title He had given me, His precious daughter, the moment I believed all those years ago in that humble Sunday School classroom.
Last week I had the opportunity to show my high school aged daughter a college campus she wished to attend, and we talked excitedly about all of the opportunities open to her because of her early successes in academics and athletics. But I didn’t end the conversation there, because I didn’t want her to make the same mistake I did at her age, putting all of her worth into her efforts, her triumphs, and her "brand." So I gently reminded her that her value, God’s love for her, and mine as well, would always be there, the firm foundation from which she could freely use her talents for God’s glory. Service to others as she effectively lives out God's plan and purpose for her life with significance that will last for all of eternity. Just like the words to the song from Rachel Lampa, when we have a personal relationship with our Savior, we are already “Somebody to You.” It's the only thing in this world that can never be taken from us. When we embrace our position in Christ as the foundation of our identity, only then we are free to pursue the work that God has uniquely designed each of us to accomplish for His glory.
Jill Murphy is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and founder of MotionWorks Physical Therapy and an advocate for patient-centered care. A Christian mom of three, she survived a seven year journey through the broken American healthcare system in search for an answer to a heart arrhythmia that appeared during pregnancy. A stroke, open heart surgery for constrictive pericarditis, and several other surgeries later, Jill is telling her story of unfailing resilience in her upcoming book, Doctor Heal Thyself.
Having grown up on a dairy farm 40 minutes from Lambeau Field, Jill is an avid Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers fan, and is up for any activity with her three children, including walking, biking, throwing the football around, hiking in scenic locales, gardening, playing piano, singing, and coaching a middle school basketball game or two.