The Immigrant Mind: Immigration and Identity (Part Two)
Luma Simms | May 25, 2017
I said in part one that throughout history, the metaphysical undergirded how people understood themselves and others. The Israelites, for example, were told by Moses to not worship the gods and idols of the surrounding nations; their one and only object of worship was to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He instructed them:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).
This instruction is foundational for Jewish identity. The Mosaic laws included elements such as food and its preparation, physical as well as ritual cleanliness, and so on. The children of Israel knew who they were. They were the sons of Abraham. They were not Egyptians, nor were they Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites, Perizzites, or Jeb′usites. To this day, the Jewish people have kept their sense of selfhood. I admire this immensely, and I have attempted to learn from it.
Our sense of selfhood comes from the relationships we have not only with others, but with institutions, as well. Identity is not made up of a singular element. Nor is my identity – pace Sartre – created by me as I go along in life. It is not self-actualizing. Selfhood comes first and fundamentally from the ties the self has to what generated it, and to whom and what it is related. Hence, I was created and born into a family, a household, a religion, a language, a culture, and a state.
The first of those claims is that I was created by someone other than myself. That relationship, between the created and the creator, sets the foundation of identity. It is not the only source of identity, but it is the most metaphysically necessary for understanding who I am as a human person. Without it, not only could I not know who I am, I would be unsure even of my human beingness.
I am someone, and I came from someone – someone who is able to give life; to give being. That someone is God, the creator of man and human fecundity. God is being, and through his creative actions, he gives of his very being.
The next spheres are family, household, religion, culture, and state. A person is born into a particular family, household, religion, culture, and state. These shared bonds between the person and all these spheres inform selfhood. I am a daughter and a sister; I am also a wife and mother. Beyond that, I am a writer. In that sphere also I have relationships and responsibility. I am a faithful daughter of the church and a parishioner at a local parish. Furthermore, I am a friend. Those relationships come with responsibility and attachments, as well. And so on and so forth. This perspective enfleshes the “no man is an island” cliché, and reminds us of its fundamental truth. A human person is not a spontaneously generated entity, nor can one thrive in isolation.
These cords to family, religious organization, city, and state, as they are strengthened, weakened, or exchanged during our lifetime, make up our identity. An attack on any of these spheres assaults the identity. My health and quality of life depend upon on how well I keep these bonds and attachments.
So when my sons pat my belly and say, “I came from there,” they are making an identity statement. The same for me. When people say, “’Luma?’ Now that’s an unusual name. Where are you from?” My answer to that question is an identity statement.
If we understand identity as a complex system, the germination of which begins at the creation of the human person, and that many of its elements are not of our own choosing (e.g., our parents, our sex, the city, language and traditions we are born into, etc.), then we see that the modern concept of “self identifying as…” is a farce. I, Luma Simms, can not wake up one morning and decide I am no longer an Iraqi immigrant. It would be an absurdity. I’ve tried and I suffered deeply. The rebellion against identity leads to greater anguish than the distress of a confused and mixed up one.
“For God and before God, the human being is always unique and unrepeatable, somebody thought of and chosen from eternity,” St. Pope John Paul II said.
Human identity begins in the womb, with the unique and unrepeatable act of the creation of that particular person into the particular circumstance and relationships he or she inherits before and upon birth. Just as every person deserves to be treated with dignity, every human being deserves to know who he or she is. Identity is tied to dignity because identity begins with the formation of the self, and the self has inherent dignity by the sheer fact of being human.
Although many of the elements of our identity are not of our own choosing, and some elements cannot and do not change (e.g., I was born a girl in Baghdad, Iraq to two Christian parents, and my first language was Arabic.), there are some aspects that can change (e.g., I read less fiction now than I used to when I was younger). A person can change over time, for better or worse. Personal development and adaptation occurs, sometimes intended and other times not.
The Schlemiel’s Survival and Strong Identity
An example of a strong surviving identity can be found in the literary figure of the schlemiel. We need to be schlemiels in order to survive this historical moment of large-scale identity crisis. Why do I say that and what do I mean by it? The schlemiel is a character common in Jewish literature, but the archetype should be familiar to anyone with a fondness for stories. Often an uneducated simpleton, he is foolish, poor and weak, but also humorous. The figure of the schlemiel has been a literary device used by Jewish authors and scholars – and superbly so by well-known Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem – to communicate deep truths about the human person in adverse times.
The schlemiel may lose everything, but he never loses himself. Why is that? Because the schlemiel has not lost his metaphysical awareness; the fact that he never loses his metaphysical awareness protects him from falling easily for identity deconstructing ideas in his surrounding culture.
In her book The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, while comparing Kafka’s heroes with Aleichem’s, Dr. Ruth Wisse wrote, “Sholem Aleichem’s heroes do not confuse their own ethos with that of the environment.” In her study, Wisse showed how Kafka’s heroes internalize the environment around them, conforming themselves to it. In comparison, Aleichem’s heroes – also experiencing difficulty and adversity from their surroundings – always filter these things through “a universe of meaning.”
Thus Sholem Aleichem’s schlemiel, for all his simplicity, or naïveté, or weakness, or dreaminess, or predisposition for misfortune, or whatever tendency it is that makes him a schlemiel, retains a very firm sense of his distinct self. His sense of personal identity and worth is not seriously disrupted by the bombardment of environmental harassments. The schlemiel represents the triumph of identity despite the failure of circumstance. (Emphasis mine.)
In the end, the very thing we scorn in the schlemiel – his insensibility – protects him from metaphysical doubt and despair, the fundamental problem of our time.
In the next part we will scale upward from the personal to national identity and take a look at the good and the ill that globalization – which breaks down civilizational barriers – has wrought. After that, I will get to the specifics of immigrants.