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On Identity

By Alex Stark
This article was first published in LifeSherpa, November 2003


My mother-in-law died at the age of 82 in January of this year. As part of the funeral preparations my wife called on a Methodist pastor. Her mother, like all of her relatives before her, had followed the Christian churches, and it was only fitting that a member of the clergy deliver a proper invocation at her funeral.

However, in one of the many conversations that followed the services, her last remaining aunt, herself a faltering 88 years old, referred to a kosher side of the family. Intrigued by this unexpected observation, my wife and one of her cousins began an investigation into the family roots that led to the discovery of a strain of Judaism in their background, one that came in direct line through the maternal side. All of a sudden, not only had my wife become Jewish, but our daughter, whom we had raised in a sort of pan-religious way, was Jewish as well.

I would have thought that this discovery would have caused an identity crisis for the two women in my life. What ensued was more of a catharsis, as both young and old received the news with a sigh of relief, as if they had somehow subconsciously known this fact but been unable to recall it or make it conscious.

My wife remarked how this event cast light on a number of familial peculiarities and ideosynchracies that had baffled her over the years. She recalled how certain members of her mother’s family had refused to go to church, even though the entire community in her small town in southern New Jersey had faithfully attended Sunday services. She speculated how the conservatism of that region had probably driven her ancestors to suppress their true religious identity as a mechanism of survival. As for our daughter, the news also provided a sort of explanation for her infatuation with Hanukkah and dredel songs.

The discovery, much like that reported by orphans who suddenly discover their biological parents, brought both relief and a need for introspection, as our new-found identity forced our family to reevaluate its history and its relationships to our local community, friends and other family members. Suddenly, new allies appeared where none had existed, and certain issues on which we had held unassailable opinions were now ripe for revision. More importantly, it forced us to confront our relationship to our own selves. In this newfound truth lay the roots of healing not only for some of my wife’s deeper wounds but also for some of the issues that had plagued our family as well. The eternal question, “Who am I?” had once again intruded into our lives, prompted by the death of a loved one.

As revelatory as this new identity was to prove, this discovery came in the heels of another, more global realization that was centered on our identity as Americans and which had been prompted by the deaths of September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. No matter what side of this conflict one may chose to stand on, the events which have transpired since 9/11 have had one unexpected result: Americans are now aware, as never before, of what the rest of the world really thinks of us.

For a very long time our society had coddled the illusion that our goals and ambitions, our way of doing things, nay our very way of life, was something others should admire, if not emulate. And the truth is, that for many people on the globe, the allure of our wealth and the sophistication of our technology and our political systems have proved to be a great inspiration and a call to their own creativity. But a greater truth is now dawning on us: that for many citizens of the world, our way of being is not only disagreeable, but also downright objectionable. If this now seems natural coming from religious fanatics opposed to our global interventionism, it is nevertheless surprising coming from impoverished farming nations who suddenly gather the courage to walk out on the trade negotiations in Cancun, and even more surprising when it comes from cultures that have been traditionally in favor of our world views, such as the French and the Germans.

The result has been that our identity as a people has been changed irreversibly, no matter how hard our government or the media try to convey a return to some pre-cultural moment when our way of life, our values and convictions seemed to carry the moral weight they no longer have. Clearly the world has not changed overnight, so why did we as a people not see what was so obvious to others? The fact is that our image has been tarnishing for a long time, yet we were incapable of seeing that simple fact. Like my wife’s ancestors, we had been trying to hide from ourselves the obvious truth.

Our mistake has been to believe that our identity could be something that we could create in the abstract, apart from the other influences that rule the globe. There is a noble history to this impulse, arising as it did from the historical roots that underlie the creation of our nation: liberty, individualism, and freedom from ideals imposed from the outside. Unfortunately, in our rush to create a new world out of the need to have and hold personal power over our destinies we have neglected the fact that this desire contradicts natural law, which states that all living forms are interrelated and that all actions are reciprocal. Despite whatever we may think, what we as Americans do at home nevertheless affects everything around the globe, and we are therefore beholden to the effect our actions may have in places we may have never heard of. This is, in fact, simple enough to understand. Less obvious is the fact that, whether we like it or not, what others think of us is vitally important to our own identity, and, if ignored, it will eventually come home to haunt us.

Our mistake has been to believe that our identity is somehow not part of our relationships with the rest of the world, that our sense of self is not somehow reciprocal to the sense of self of others. Identity is formed when the gaze of the other meets our own. In fact, our sense of self is always related to how others perceive us and it grows and changes as our relationships evolve. Identity requires that we be seen and recognized as we are. It also requires that we remain conscious of this exchange and that we adjust to the flow of energy which it implies. To achieve this it is essential that we remain fully conscious of our relationship to all things and to the reciprocal exchanges which continuously relate us to the world around us. This includes not only other humans, but the entire web of life that supports us.

Global consciousness means just that: for every thought or action on our part there is a reactive thought or action in return. Whatever we do to others will eventually return to us augmented by the additional reaction of those to whom it was done. If our actions are just and respectful, then we will receive fair treatment in return, and the potential for prosperity and joy is increased. If we were to err in this regard, however, the ensuing result will be commensurate not only with the gravity of our error, but it will be augmented by the reaction of those others whom we have aggrieved. In addition, because energy flows within the medium of time, time itself also adds energy to all reciprocal relationships. If nurtured, a relationship grows in time. If neglected, time will cause that relationship to fester until a crisis ensues. This is nature’s way of achieving balance. What this means in practical terms is that reciprocal results are not directly proportional to energy input; they are geometrically proportional. Small, consistent, and positive efforts will pay handsomely in time. Conversely, neglect, if sustained long enough, has the potential to generate disastrous consequences.

It is ironic that it sometimes takes a full-blown crisis to clear up misconceptions of identity. In the case of America, it has been the terrible blow of 9/11 and the continuing crisis in Iraq. In the case of my family, it was the death of our matriarch. Nevertheless, the seeds of healing have sprouted for my wife and our life together. It is my hope that the events of the last years will lead our country to a renewed sense of identity, more in keeping with the truth of our position in the world; a sense of identity based not on the illusion of personal needs and detachment from our responsibility as members of a global society, but based on the truth of our dependence upon others, their values, and desires.

And lest the importance of a detail go unnoticed, let me emphasize that fact that it was our daughter, through her innocent dredel songs, who most clearly saw through the illusion. Like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, her gaze was clear. I find both inspiration and a warning in this: that truth cannot be hidden from the innocent, that it will find a way to manifest itself, and that if all else fails, death, as the ultimate arbiter, will intervene and make us see who we really are.