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.

THE CONVERSATION I HEARD ONE DAY ON THE GYM FLOOR, OR WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BELIEVE?

By Paul

I try to go to my gym at least four or five times a week.  The idea is to keep the blood flowing through my 69 year old veins, so as to avoid another heart attack (I’ve had two).  So far, it seems to be working pretty well.

The particular gym I go to is part of a local Jewish Community Center.  I’ve heard that about half of the people who attend it are Jews, and the other half are not.  So, when I overhear things while working out, I’m not normally particularly aware of who is saying what.  However, not long ago, I did hear a conversation between two middle-aged women, both of whom, it soon became obvious, were Jewish.  One of the women was telling the other that she and her family did not attend temple anymore.  The other woman said she didn’t either, but both quickly assured each other that it was still important for them and their children to identify as Jewish, and in some sense to follow the traditions.

Now, I pretty much keep to myself while on the gym floor, and prefer not to stand around chatting.  After all, that’s not why I’m there.  So, even if I’d known these women, which I did not, I probably wouldn’t have said anything.  Besides, I’m not Jewish, so in that sense what they were saying was none of my business.

Or was it?  I began thinking later on what it meant to have a religious identity.  These women, and presumably their spouses and children, clearly identified as Jewish, but they went on to say that they didn’t particularly believe in God anymore.  That was interesting, I thought, because I think of myself as having no religion at all, and yet I do believe in God.

Once upon a time, in what now seems like the far distant past, I strongly identified as Roman Catholic.  Indeed, specifically Irish Catholic, if that makes sense.   For me at the time, what this meant was strict adherence to religious dogma, trust and reliance on the hierarchical model of the Church, and a strong belief in and reliance on some of the more devotional aspects of the Church, things like saying the rosary, prayer to the Blessed Mother and the saints, and attendance at such services as Benediction (the reverential viewing of the Eucharist, accompanied by set prayers and hymns, all in Latin at the time).  In fact, these devotional practices somehow took on for me an even greater importance than the Mass itself or the sacraments.  And I think that was not so unusual among old-fashioned Irish-Catholics.

What happened between then and now is a long story.  But it involves a lot of anger and disillusionment on my part, disenchantment at what I came to see as the profoundly uncharitable nature of the Church, and recognition of its doctrinaire rigidity that brings so much unnecessary pain and suffering on so many people.

In the course of throwing off religion, I became for a while what I thought of as an atheist, although it soon became clear to me that this did not suit me very well.  I still, by the way, admire atheists, inasmuch as for me at least they represent the utter no-nonsense view of life as it is lived in the here and now.  I came to see that many atheists appeared to be more moral than some religious people, certainly than many dogmatists and religious fanatics, and that they were willing to face the ultimate questions with admirable honesty, courage, and directness.  I don’t mean to say that I wish I were an atheist.  If I wanted to, I would simply be one.  Still, as I have said, I admired them, and still do.

Does it seem surprising that I – a professed “believer” – would admire someone who professes not to believe?  I hope not, because doubt, and wonder, and an awe that, as it were, strikes one dumb, are basic to what I see as a belief in a Divine Spirit.  And lots of atheist, I think, look at the world with awe and wonder, and yes, probably sometimes with doubt too.  After all – or am I imagining it? – doubt is not limited only to religious believers.  Absolute sureness, with never a moment’s hesitancy or uncertainty, is the property only of total blind faith.  But in this sense, atheists too “believe in” their atheism and perhaps – like many of us – occasionally have their own doubts about what they believe.  Faith does not eschew our need to question.

Still, it was interesting that the two middle-aged ladies in my gym continued to very much consider themselves Jewish, even though, as they averred, they had no faith in God.  Of course, much has to do with people thinking of being Jewish not merely, or solely, as a religion, but as an ethnicity, as being part of “a tribe,” as it were.  For me, too, I still think of myself as Irish-American, since believing or not believing should in principle have little to do with that identity. I still have an interest in Irish history, literature, mythology, and even, fleetingly, the Irish language.  And yet, I have to admit to myself that something has changed for me, that in some sense I no longer feel quite as Irish as I once did.  And I wonder if my gym partners, too, somehow were not protesting just a little too much about still feeling perfectly Jewish either.

I’ve come to my own conclusions about spirituality, and am convinced that it does not necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with religion.  Religion is about organization and laws and rules, things of the earth, human things.  Sometimes, too often in fact, it’s also about control of people, about power and authority.  And in emphasizing these things, religion all too often leaves out that awe and wonder, that inability to define what is ultimately indefinable and unutterable that to me identifies what I think of as true spirituality.

But the wonder about religion, and about identity, has not left me.  Nor the wonder about atheism either, because as I see it atheists are believers in the sanctity of the manifest world, while adherents of spirituality are believers in what is unmanifest.  However, I do not see the two as all that different, because at least for me the Unknowable Unmanifest permeates, pervades, and informs all the known manifestation of the natural world.

So, why talk about all this in the first place then?  Why wonder about religion, atheism, identity, or even spirituality?  There may be as many answers to that as there are people who think about such things.  My take on it is that there has to be some connection, some balance, between whatever your belief may be (and remember, I list atheism as a kind of belief) and how a person acts in the world.  It’s no more enough to only sit in the forest and meditate than it is to go to a church, or simply to deny the existence of a God.  In every case, we have bodies, we live in a physical world, and it is our duty to make the most of that.  Making the most of it, in fact, means fulfilling our own potential as much as possible, and treating others, indeed treating the whole world (I mean the physical planet) respectfully, even reverentially.  I hope no one misunderstands me:  nobody has to be – or should ever be – anyone’s doormat.  Neither should we go looking for trouble, and we ought instead to go about creating as little trouble in the world as possible.

I have the sense that behavior is more important than belief.  Life is not easy for anyone.  Who does not have trials and difficulties to face, everything from sickness and physical suffering to loss of those whom we love?  Who among us can say there are no personal battles to fight, no wars to engage in, many of which are waged right within our own psyches?  I often think of the Bhagavad-Gita in this regard, the great Hindu scripture, wherein at the beginning the blind king, Dhritarashtra, asks his seer to describe to him the scene on “the scared plain” before them.  On one level at least, the Bhagavad-Gita is the story of a battle between two warring royal families.  But metaphorically it describes the battles we all have before us on “the sacred plain” of our lives.  No one, however fortunate we may think that person, escapes these battles.   The Jewish ladies in the gym were talking about one tiny skirmish, but each of us has his own challenges, her own grief, great or small, at varying times in life.

So, belief may be a good thing, as long as we do not use it as a cudgel to beat other people up with.  And, as I said, who does not believe in something, even in his right and ability not to believe?

As I see it, whatever it is you may believe, in the end there are a few essentials that should always be kept in mind:  don’t behave badly, treat others with compassion and respect, and in whatever way possible do everything you can to leave this beautiful planet of ours a better place than you found it.  What more can be asked of us?  What more, in fact, can any of us do?