First of all, I want to say thank you to you, dear friends and readers, for the overwhelming compassion and kindness you have extended in response to my last post. I spent 24 hours (almost literally — sleep has been elusive) after writing it with my finger hovering between ‘delete’ and ‘publish’ before finally working up the courage to post it. I am sorry I haven’t yet replied to many of you. I promise I will. But I want to let you know now, albeit in an impersonal way, that your words in response to mine have be an encouragement I never expected to receive, and I am deeply awed and humbled to be embraced by a community of truly kind and wise people, many of whom I have never met in person. The tears of grief are still there, but they are joined now by tears of gratitude. Thank you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently. About the labels we so readily create for ourselves. About the categories that are forced upon us.
I have dual nationality by birth — British and American. I spent my formative years in Appalachian America but my adult years in Scotland. Does that make me American? Or Scottish?
I was raised in the American Episcopal Church but in a family that was largely Presbyterian. I was ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church but now minister in the Church of Scotland. So am I Episcopalian? Or Presbyterian?
I was given the surname McDonald when I was born. I took the name Reynolds when I married. Now I’m changing it again. But the change back doesn’t acknowledge how much I’ve moved forwards since I was last Kate McDonald. So which am I really?
It’s usually said in jest, but I often hear that I’m not American enough because of my time in Scotland, or not Scottish enough because of my American accent. I’m not Presbyterian enough because of my Episcopal background, but not Episcopalian enough now I’m working for the Church of Scotland.
I’m in that twilight zone between marriage and divorce… separated, not single enough.
It’s an uncomfortable place to be … to hear over and over that you’re not enough of one thing or another to fully belong. Because eventually, it starts to translate simply as not enough.
I am living in a land where identity is important. Where categories count. Where labels are either limiting or liberating.
And everywhere I turn, I hear the same question being asked. Who am I?
I hear it most often from the Palestinian Arab community, especially here in Israel. Am I an Arab Israeli? A Palestinian living in Israel? Do I define myself by my religion? Or my family’s homeland? Or the state I live in now?
But I hear it in the Jewish community as well, though phrased slightly differently, and less publicly. I’m Jewish … but Russian. I’m Jewish … but Messianic. I’m Jewish … but don’t identify with the current government. All carrying the undertone of not being Jewish enough to be Israeli.
If we don’t know who we are, how can we be in relationship with another? The natural response is to seek out those who are most like us. It’s certainly more comfortable. But it doesn’t have to be taken to an extreme to create self-isolating communities and echo-chambers.
When we don’t know who we are, when we internalise the message of not enough, we look for others who are even less, and direct our fears towards them. Or we embrace another person, a community, a cause who preys on our vulnerability and is quick to bestow upon us an identity or a sense of belonging — too often on their terms, and to the detriment of our real selves.
It’s the worst of religion, the worst of politics that comes to the fore in times like these. And I am not just seeing it happen in the land in which I am presently living, but also in the places I once called home.
Sadly it’s the worst of ourselves that emerges when we feel frightened and alone.
And while I certainly do not condone the consequences of this identity crisis, and the injustice and violence (physical and psychological) that results from it, I am far more sympathetic because I am beginning to understand one of the (many) complex roots of the problems of this land.
I have no easy answers.
But where I find hope is in the places where people ask themselves the hard question of ‘Who am I?’ and refuse the answer of not enough. Where I find hope is in the people who search themselves to know their lostness and vulnerability and seek out others who are so different from themselves to name and share in that pain and confusion together.
It is hard work. Because this process isn’t about simply confessing our wrongdoings or asking others to do likewise. We must do something far more difficult: we must expose the fragility of our hearts and be entrusted with the fragile hearts of others. Only then do we learn who we — and others — really are in a way that transcends labels.
I am navigating new terrain just now. I have inflicted hurt stemming from my own fear and loneliness. I have long sought an inauthentic identity in the wrong places. And can only now see a glimpse of who I really am. But I am inspired daily by people I encounter in this land who have walked this way before me with courage, integrity and compassion. For them I give thanks.