Monday, January 23, 2017

Identity, Again

          A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.
                                    Ralph Waldo Emerson

Small minds also reference drunken Irishmen, dumb blondes, cheap Jews, Italian shoemakers and rigid Germans. Dozens more could be added to the list and they all belong in the non-recyclable garbage bin. Conversely not all Blacks are great dancers or athletes nor are all Asians inscrutable and brilliant students. I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved on beyond those stereotypes.

Personal identity is another matter and one that I grapple with. It is easier to look in from outside the tent that out from inside. If I am to identify myself tribally as Jewish I subordinate my free will to a pre-existing condition. But what if I reject that set of beliefs? If I find the religion irrelevant, at best, and exclusionary fables at worst, which when taken literally lead followers astray? Furthermore, if I take issue with the current Israeli leadership, and I find myself dis-identifying, am I still Jewish?

Yes, say some of my friends, I must be one of those self-hating ones. I really don’t hate anyone, particularly myself, but if that makes them happy so be it. I know, I know, if Hitler’s goon squad came knocking they wouldn’t care what I had to say. But I can’t live my life letting others define me. On the other hand I probably look Jewish, talk so, eat in delis, am endowed with Jewish humor and whatever else attaches itself to the cultural heritage. Tradition offers continuity but can also be seen as the illusion of permanence. I squirm with hollow rituals.

If we leave the tent have we lost our identity? I see it not as a flight from… but an embrace of… To the extent we are allowed to assert free will I choose secular humanism, a universality that seeks behaviors and beliefs which join rather than divide people. We are all inscrutable, graceful-clumsy, cheap-magnanimous, sober-intoxicated and brilliant-dumb. Rejection of my faith feels, to me, like inclusion in a wider community of kindred souls.

As for religion I don’t mean to dismiss it altogether. My belief is that it is too important, too sacred even, to be left to the conventional practitioners. I believe in the adjective, not the noun. A religious experience is what goes on between people at a level of full authenticity or those transcendent moments when one feels a creative burst, a connectivity to a larger plane.

To carry this further, is there really such a thing as identity? Who am I, is one of those ultimate questions. The answer is a work-in-progress. For me it has little to do with my birthright or profession or where I live or my life as a Dodger fan or my political preferences.

Small minds seem to require categories along with consistency. They like a fixed resolution they can file away. But life is messy and largely inexplicable. Sometimes I don’t agree with myself or hold opposing views at the same time. As David Brooks asks, do we live for our resume’ or our eulogy? I think the latter. 
Those core attributes are the measure of a man, the ones most of us aspire to, rather than the credits and successes to be aggrandized ….unless you are the man, with the small mind, now presiding over our lives.  

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