Discovering who we truly are

August 1, 2017 -- Living City

Discovering who we truly are
At the crossroads between national identity and an openness to dialogue, a way forward

By Nancy O’Donnell

I recently returned from a trip to Belgrade. It was my first time in Eastern Europe, and I was surprised to hear my friends talk about people born and raised in Serbia who could not be considered Serbs because they are not members of the Orthodox Church. National identity for them includes religious identity without exception.

Fly nine hours to New York, and you’ll meet people who consider themselves Jewish, but this identity is not linked to a nation and at times not even to religious practice. Jews are a “people” regardless of what country they were born or live in.

On another trip through a few countries in Asia, I was eating dinner with a group of mostly nationals of one country and someone made a comment that could easily be seen as offensive toward them. One young woman who had just returned from living in another country went immediately on a fiery defense of her people. We managed to talk through the different opinions without bloodshed, but I realized that among many other things, these trips were teaching me much about the meaning of national identity.

I’ve known Italians, Brazilians, Germans, etc. who have lived the majority of their adult lives outside of their home countries. They are still absolutely and unequivocally Italians, Brazilians and Germans at some basic, fundamental level of identity. Whether their life experiences in contact with other nationalities enrich or embitter them depends on a myriad of factors, both internal and external.

Personally, the first time I traveled abroad (years before globalization) was the first time I called myself American. I had always identified myself as Irish (without regard to how many generations removed). Currently living in Loppiano, Italy, whose 800-plus inhabitants come from 65 countries, I find myself wondering about the meaning of national identity in general, and especially what it means for me to be an American, and in this instance, an American living abroad.

Developing an identity

Identity formation begins early in our life, and in some ways it continues to evolve throughout our lifetime. There are important core aspects that are considered stable, unchanging, and others that we assume for periods of time and then leave behind.

At any given time in our lives we need to know how we respond to the questions: “Who am I?” “What kind of person do I want to be?” “How do I want others to see me?” “How would I like to be remembered?”

Our identity has both biological and environmental origins, but since we are focusing on national identity here, we can look primarily at the environment. We grow and develop a sense of self through relationships: family, school, community, nation and beyond. An ever-widening circle of people interact with us, offering information, giving feedback, supplying support, launching challenges, indicating possibilities together with creating problems, hurting and betraying us, and abandoning us.

We incorporate some of this into our sense of self and discard the rest. It is important to add that a process that was already complex and multifaceted has become more so with input from sources outside the home and community through technology.

Identity and values

Identity, particularly what is called the “ideal-self,” and self-esteem are closely linked. That’s the answer we give to the question regarding the person we want to be. The values we have decided are essential, and how well we live according to them, will impact how we feel about ourselves at any given moment.

Values are like an inner compass that we use to guide our decisions day after day, often outside of our awareness. By making choices in accordance with our value system, we preserve our identity and experience a sense of security as we navigate through the many challenges that life presents to us. When we lack a clear set of values, we experience confusion, indecisiveness and frustration. And we struggle with finding adequate answers to the questions posed above.

In a similar way, when we perceive that these values are being attacked or challenged, especially by someone who is “different,” our emotional reaction is likely to be strong, at times even irrational. We take this kind of criticism “personally,” and rightfully so, because it touches us at the core of our personhood, at the part of ourselves that we consider valuable.

An identity in an immigrant nation

Trying to figure out what it means to be an American dates back to the beginning of this nation.

“When the theocratic Puritans of New England, the peaceful Quakers of Pennsylvania, the aristocratic British planters of Virginia, the Catholic settlers of Maryland, the Krefeld Mennonites in Germantown, and the many others who had come to the 13 British colonies looked around, they wondered what, despite their different languages, ethnic backgrounds, and religious beliefs, made them citizens of the newly founded U.S. and representatives of that newly created species, the ‘American’” (American Studies Journal, 2016).

It’s interesting. There was no problem for my Dad to be proud to be an American and just as proud of his Canadian heritage. People can hold quite firmly to the roots of perceived cultural origins, and remain patriotic to the “stars and stripes.” The nation always seemed to have room for both. Perhaps being from the United States has nothing to do with roots, but rather with looking forward, aiming for something better and believing it is possible.

Aspects of this reality have been addressed in other articles in this issue. We’re attempting to understand what qualities are desirable in the makeup of our identity that render it more likely to find contact with other people of other cultures and backgrounds enriching and growth-producing, rather than fear-filled and embittering.

With so many ethnicities present from the beginning, you would expect tolerance to be woven into the fabric of our lives. Could it be that we human beings have a limit on precisely how different others are allowed to be? One might decide that dark skin color is too different, or that Muslim is too different. Or perhaps, the key lies in understanding how different becomes no longer interesting, but a threat.

Earlier we stated that a vital part of our identity is our value system. A perceived threat to those values that we consider both personal and collective (in the sense of national) calls forth a defensive response. The red light saying “danger” starts blinking in our minds, and we risk becoming susceptible to influence from those who would like to fan the flames of a forceful response.

World events and the fact that we are now informed of every happening makes it difficult to keep fear from governing our actions. Developing an identity that includes being a person of dialogue necessitates first an active, conscious decision to include this in our definition of who we want to be, and how we want to be remembered. It requires us to avoid interacting only with people who agree with us, while at the same time seeking out others who share the values we treasure.

It takes work and commitment to learn how to interact with someone whose values challenge what we believe to be unshakeable principles. Letting go totally leads to relativism. Holding on too tightly closes us off from possibilities to learn and grow, and can lead to discrimination and prejudice. We may even find ourselves needing to adapt our beliefs about our identity to justify our actions and decisions.

To avoid such consequences, it’s worth the effort and inner struggle to remain faithful to who we truly are and always discover new ways to find that which unites us rather than that which divides us.