One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts. —John O’Donohue
This quote came from an excellent post on a Website (www.brainpickings.org) by writer Maria Popova. It resonated with a story I told in Saturday’s workshop about trying to be “sensitive” in which children I chose to be the poor children with strong character or the rich children with dubious character based on gender and ethnicity. Of course, I agree we need to be careful about falling into stereotypes, but at the end of the day, the choice was made based on what the kids were excited about doing and it felt frustrating to worry so much about these things so that something as joyful as a play could become the battleground for…well, political correctness. I don’t like that the conservatives make fun of that term and disparage the reasons why it has become an issue. And yet I agree that there are times when it goes too far and this felt like an example of one. (By the way, though some fellow staff members seemed worried about it and suggest I contact the parents, I didn’t and no parents or kids complained.)
But Ms. Popova’s piece continues to suggest that we’re going from feeling confined by the narrow strictures of people in power defining others in ways that limit and fail to see their actual wondrous selves to these marginalized groups themselves choosing to narrow themselves by “identity politics.” As if the grand panorama of a 360 degree human life could be reduced to one tiny aspect of identity, be it gender, sexual preference, economic status, religion, musical preferences, astrological sign, diet, recovery process, learning difference, nationality, what have you. Yes, it is better for someone to self-identify and choose to name and proclaim that identity than to have others do it for them. But that’s a bit like saying choosing to step into a confined cage and staying there is vastly preferable to being thrown into that cage by others. In either case, you end up in a cage. As Ms. Popova expresses it:
The safety of conformity to an old-guard mainstream has been supplanted by the safety of conformity to a new-order minority predicated on some fragment of identity, so that those within each new group (and sub-group, and sub-sub-group) are as harsh to judge and as fast to exclude “outsiders” (that is, those of unlike identity-fragments) from the conversation as the old mainstream once was in judging and excluding them. In our effort to liberate, we have ended up imprisoning — imprisoning ourselves in the fractal infinity of our ever-subdividing identities, imprisoning each other in our exponentially multiplying varieties of otherness.
Our urge to belong is so deep that we often sell our own soul to do so, to be a card-carrying member of any group, just so long as we’re not alone. But it’s a high price to pay. And it’s a false belonging, when you have to check the other parts of yourself at the door. The true belonging is a group of people who have claimed “the wonder of their presence,” who have chosen to ride the wild energies that each of us carry in some form or another, who have crafted the ability to see the unique character and humanity of others that lies behind the surface identities. Yes, it’s true that we can fool ourselves when we think that we are free of the conditioning of centuries of racism, sexism, xenophobia, classism, etc., that it’s important to recognize what images have been imprinted by the relentless stamps of various media. But at some point—usually when we get to actually know someone—we drop the idea that Lily is Chinese, middle class, daughter of two gay moms, dyslexic and a vegan and she simply is Lily.
Thanks to Mr. O’Donohue and Ms. Popova for throwing some light on this issue. I’m sure none of your thoughts cared at all that you are respectively Irish and Bulgarian.