Identity is slippery

1 Oct

Identity is slippery

I heard an interview a few days ago that keeps buzzing in my head. The central figure is a second-generation Turkish German, whose parents migrated to Germany in a program for guest-workers. He is a writer, living in Berlin. One exchange is especially vivid in my memory:

“Do you identify as a German?”


“Do you identify as a Turk?”

“No, definitely not!”

“How do you identify?”

“As me–a person who has learned to cope and a person of worth and capabilities.”

“You have a daughter–do you wish for her to identify as German?”

“No. I wish for her to identify as I have–with her intrinsic worth and capabilities.”

“Do you wish for her to live a life of hope?”

“No. Living in hope means that you don’t appreciate your own intrinsic worth, you’re living always in the expectation that something will come to you from the outside, to make your life better. I want my daughter to take satisfaction in what she is now and the capabilities she has already has that enable her to cope with change.”

The writer’s statements are not fully coherent–for example, I would say that emphasis on one’s capabilities entails some hope for the future. Nevertheless, the man’s confession is a clear and stunning perspective on personal identity.

His position is extraordinarily individualistic. But look at the man’s situation. Biologically and culturally he came into this world Turkish, but he has no desire to live in that world now or allow it to define him. He has grown up acculturated in a German world that has historically not been very welcoming to immigrants. There are many restrictions on persons of non-German lineage becoming full-fledged citizens. After all, comparable with many nations around the world, Germany belongs to the descendants of the peoples that have lived on German territory for millennia. Only in the 1990s, culminating with a new law in 2000, could the writer–as a German-born child of Turkish parents who lived in Germany for at least eight years–become a German citizen.

Many people identify themselves through their nationality. The public discussions of who is American (meaning a citizen of the United States) are as tortured as those in Germany. We do not say that the U. S. belongs to the historic settlers and their descendants, to be sure. The truth is that four hundred years ago, the European immigrants began a long struggle to seize the land from the historic settlers–the Native American Indians through military force that continued until the late 19th century, the Hispanics through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as well as through the Spanish-American War and the Mexican-American War, both in the 1840s. Our national consciousness is largely ignorant of this history–that vast areas of the Midwest have belonged to the U. S. for only 212 years and that California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado for only 175 years. “The greatest nation that God ever created” has a checkered history, and not all of that history is easily related to God.

If a person’s identity is bound up with America, just what is that identity? Every political speech ends with the words,”God bless America”–but just what is being attributed to God? It is not surprising that many people choose to find their identity in other ways. Pico Iyer was born in England of Indian parents, lived in the U.S. for several years, and now resides in Japan. His identity, he says, is formed not by place or ethnicity, but by certain values and by interacting with other people who share those values.

Some find their identity in their ethnicity. Or should we say that our society defines them by their ethnicity–or by the color of their skin. African-Americans hold tenaciously that their claim to be American is more deeply rooted than most whites, since blacks have been here 400 years, far longer than most others. Women may identify with their gender–again pressured by the societal forces them into gender stereotypes. Jews are in a different situation–their ethnicity is also religious, whether or not they practice it. And again their societal context defines them as Jews. We may choose an identity, but our social context bestows an identity on is, too. Which is our “true” identity? Or is identity forged in the interplay between our self-chosen and our socially bestowed identities?

During the Vietnam war protests, I was impressed by the Roman Catholic protesters–exemplified by the Berrigan brothers, both priests–who testified to a religious identity that transcends nation and ethnicity, and in many cases, gender, as well.

Whatever forms the center of identity must be reformed and purified. As a Christian who wishes to identify with the Christ-community and its traditions, it is crucial that my community be open to all, because Christ is infinitely open to the creation and its people. But I feel similarly about my national identity. I do not want to be identified with a racist America or an America that forgets and pushes aside the poor, the weak, and the handicapped. I do not want to identify with an America whose goal is to become a military colossus astride the globe.

I do want to reform and purify all the sources of my identity. I gladly endorse the Jewish tenet, Tikkun Olam–reform or heal the world. Of course, this means that I am a creature of hope and my God is the source of hope.

When I reflect on the issues of identity, I empathize with the Turkish-German writer. Identifying fully with who I am now and my capabilities may not be an adequate identity, but it’s not a bad place to start. Whatever my identity, it must acknowledge this starting-point. The starting-point changes rapidly, however. When I retired, my internal sense of self did not change immediately, but others perceived me in quite different ways. This changed drastically when I entered the camp of the “elderly” and even more when I became confined to a wheelchair. Before, I was a classroom teacher, a preacher, a public lecturer, and a traveler. Now I am reader and a writer, and I try to be a positive factor in the lives of those around me. And I am much more dependent on the goodwill of others. There is a constant dialogue, even a conflict, between the identity I feel in myself and the identity bestowed on me by others, especially those outside my retirement community. I am playing catch-up much of the time–but so are those I meet.

Much more can be said, but I’ll leave this where I began: Identity is slippery.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/1/2015

2 Responses to “Identity is slippery”

  1. pixfixer October 1, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    As always, superb insights …. you have given me much to ponder on this very rainy day in Virginia. Thank you, Mr. Hefner.

  2. Liftthescreen October 2, 2015 at 2:26 am #

    I’m glad the piece resonated. It’s always good to hear from you.

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