THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY: WHO ARE WE, AFTER ALL?

By Paul M. Lewis

Whom do we identify with? That’s a basic question all of us may want to spend some time thinking about. It might seem at first to be of relatively small importance, too abstract to even mean anything in the real world. But it turns out the answer to it influences a lot about how we live our everyday lives.

Let me start off with an example from my own life. When I was young, I thought of myself as a good Catholic boy. At least, that is what I strove to be, possibly more so even than many of my classmates at St. Patrick’s Grammar School (yes, in those days, they were thought of as schools where grammar was taught, meaning not just how best to construct a sentence, but more widely, how to comport oneself in the world, how to construct a life). At St. Patrick’s, there were good boys and bad boys, the latter (mostly Italian—no one said Italian-Americans in those days) being those who flaunted the rules and wore their hair in a certain style the nuns most definitely disapproved of called a DA, or duck’s ass. They were the rebels, the tough guys, the non-conformists, the group I didn’t belong to (as much as I may have secretly wanted to be one of them).

Instead, I hung out with those who were less outwardly rebellious. But even these boys swore, spent a lot of time talking about sex, and generally didn’t take religion all that seriously. I tried to identify with them, but somehow it never came off very naturally for me. Inwardly, I disapproved of (could it be said that I feared?) their language, their topics of conversation, and their general disinterest in religious teachings. I suppose some might have thought I was a bit of a pill. The one saving grace I probably had was that, even at a young age, I instinctively knew enough about how to get along with people for them to accept me as one of their own. But, unbeknownst to them, I would often sneak off and kneel in prayer in the darkened interior of St. Patrick’s Church, or attend Friday night Benediction (a traditional Catholic devotional service). No wonder then, at age fourteen, I decided to enter a monastery.

Even there, however, I found boys who did not quite live up to my standards, which were very high! Yet people still appeared to like me because I was by nature a peacemaker and someone who tried to see the best in others, while openly criticizing no one. A big part of my not criticizing others stemmed from the awful realization that I knew I was far from the idealized self I imagined I should be. How could I blame others for not being somehow better, when the very faults I recognized in them I also saw all too clearly in myself—in fact, far worse ones? There were things the Church said not to do which I did, and many others which, while I might not have done them, I earnestly wanted to. And if I wanted it so much, wasn’t that tantamount to actually doing it? In short, the standards I believed the Church established for me, and those that I freely embraced on my own, were mountains so high I could never hope to fully scale them. In that sense, I consistently set up my own failure.

And so, my principal focus of identification in those years was with an idealized Church, one that I believed would allow me to lead a life I felt I was supposed to lead. It was a kind of umbilical cord that provided an association, a connection with an entity that I felt to be greater than myself, and which at the same time gave me a kind of scaffolding upon which to construct a life that I otherwise felt to be constantly on the verge of collapsing disastrously out of all control.

It worked, too, at least for a while, even if not completely, because I often felt I failed at the high standards I had created for myself. As such, and in keeping with Catholic teaching, I thought of myself as a sinner. Still, the superstructure did provide me with a consistent foundation upon which I endeavored to build something. Until, of course, it didn’t. The first problem with what might be called the “idealized external” is that it is, by definition, outside of oneself; and the second is that it, too, eventually shows itself to be less than perfect. Even I could see that the luster had begun to tarnish, that the Church was showing a darker, seedier, more squalid side. After all, it was made up of people, and people are far from perfect. Aside from being sometimes good and helpful and even loving, they—we, all of us—are also more than capable of selfishness, cruelty, prejudice, cynicism, arrogance, egotism, deceitfulness, anger, even violence. And the list could, of course, go on.

What I am saying is that any organization, any human group, no matter how good its intentions (in particular, its initial intentions, until time and usage begin to break them down), is so flawed we ought to think long and hard about fully identifying with it. And not just religious organizations; other groups as well could certainly be included, such as political parties, philanthropies, environmental groups, sports teams, cultural associations, as well as organizations affiliated with labor, the military etc.

In fact, the core of the problem comes exactly down to the question of the depth of one’s identification with the external. My childhood relationship with the Catholic Church, and with the particular monastic tradition I belonged to, was so all engulfing as to obscure everything else. I took it to be all there was, and when I eventually began to realize that life was writ far larger than that, more complex, messier, dirtier, more intent, more insistent on its own needs than anything I had previously thought possible, then I saw that this first object of my identification could no longer contain everything that I was.

But what could? That is the very question I have struggled with for many years. It is a question all of us must face. What I have always looked for is a wider, a deeper, more all-inclusive connectivity. Ultimately, I came to believe that this was my own relationship with my self; or, I should say, with my Self, the capitalized “s” indicative of some part of my being (and not just mine, of course, but everyone’s), beyond mere ego identity, that both includes all the things of everyday concern and, at the same time, goes beyond that.

I take great comfort in a particular passage from one of my favorite scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita. If ever there has been a more insightful statement on identification, in the largest sense of that term, essentially on who we are, then I don’t know what it might be. Speaking of union with Brahma (the Creative Principle of the Godhead), Krishna says: “He so vowed, so blended, sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained…Who dwell in all that lives and cleaves to Me in all, if a man sees everywhere—taught by his own similitude—one Life, one Essence, in the evil and the good, hold him a yogi, yea, well perfected!”

Taught be our own similitude—that’s a very interesting phrase. The language may sound a bit obscure, but put more simply, what it means is that we see in others exactly what is already within us, namely both evil and good; actually, more to the point, some messy, chaotic intermingling of the two. That is what human beings look like, at least on the outside. Within, who knows? Perhaps something bigger, more perfect, something that connects with all of life, and at the same time transcends it. Maybe this is what it means to realize who we truly are. And, if so, that’s what I want to identify with.

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