Excuse Me, You Have Something on Your Forehead

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Sarah Griswold is a junior double majoring in Mathematics and Religious Studies. She spends her “free time” analyzing her favorite shows on Netflix, which of course winds up ruining them.

To get you started for some Ash Wednesday talk, enjoy some GloZell:

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten Season – the days leading up to Easter, meant to symbolize Jesus’s 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. By now, you probably have seen people with ashes on their foreheads and at least one or two articles linked on Facebook or other social media about what Ash Wednesday is, what it means, and what the ashes are for. What I find interesting is how the ashes operate as an intentional mode of identification.

As individuals who regularly interact with others and insert ourselves into society, we are constantly and consistently subject to classification by others and our own ideas of who we are. This manifests itself most commonly in race and gender, but it also appears based on observation of interactions with others. For example, you may see a woman (you have already classified her gender) holding a baby and conclude that she is a mother. Many aspects of the way we choose to present ourselves and therefore categorize ourselves are subconscious.

There are, however, many choices we make that are intentional. On campus here at UA, many individuals will wear the letters of an organization to associate themselves with a particular group of people and set of ideals. I, for one, am a part of a music fraternity called Sigma Alpha Iota and on every Wednesday we wear something with our letters on it. This is intentional in the strictest sense of the word.

So what does this have to do with Ash Wednesday? Today, I have ashes on my forehead and the letters ΣAI on my sweatshirt. If you see me walking down the street today, you will first say that I am a white female. Next, you will see my letters and either associate me with ΣAI or, not knowing what that is, some sort of Greek organization. As you walk closer, you will see the ashes on my forehead and, depending on your familiarity with Ash Wednesday, say that I am observing Lent or say something like, “Excuse me. You have something on your forehead.” My identity, then, is defined by you, but controlled by me.

I have no immediate control over my race and gender, yet it’s the first thing about myself that you classify. I chose to wear letters, but had I not, you would know nothing about that aspect of my life. The ashes are special to today.

For those observing Lent this year, Ash Wednesday is the time to show the world. They get to wear their ashes, which results only in lingering gazes and a couple of questions from those unfamiliar with the day. It is a piece of their identity that they now have a nonverbal way of communicating to others. For those observing those with ashes, they either learn something new about Christianity or about those they see with the ashes.

Of course, to those with the ashes, it is not just about identifying oneself for the world to see. There are many more reasons for it and you can read it about those in the articles you see linked on Facebook. For now, I leave you with a couple of questions: What ways do you intentional manipulate your identity and how others perceive you? What do you see others do to identify themselves?

Photo credit: George Fox Evangelical Seminary on Flickr CC BY 2.0

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