Eckhart Tolle calls it our inherited dysfunction. Ancient religions have referred to it as our collective madness. I’m sure that regardless of political opinion, many of us could agree that certain world events, such as Brexit, are perfect examples of how the world is currently going through a major identity crisis. But this is something that is relevant for nations and individuals alike.
When you’re someone like me who is mixed race, these are very interesting times, because I potentially belong everywhere and nowhere at once. Where I was born, what my heritage is, what my nationality is, which passport I travel with, where I call home, how I look, how I identify, where I pay all my taxes, where I might retire, these are all completely different things. So when a country says they want to limit foreigners or immigrants, or that they want to be more British (or insert any other national identity here), where do we even start with that? To me, I’m just me and it shouldn’t be so complicated. The labels placed upon me are contrived by a world that feels the need to compartmentalize things to create some kind of order but it doesn’t reflect who I really am. I am so fortunate that I don’t have a label that invites persecution of some sort beyond simply being a foreigner. I am able to contemplate the topic of identity from the safety of being uninteresting in so many ways.
When I was younger, I often thought how nice it must be to be born firmly planted in one country’s identity, born into generations and generations of people all from the same place. I thought life must surely be so straightforward, to know who you are, where your home is and where you will spend Christmas each year without any shadow of a doubt. But I’ve come to realize that this is not a guaranteed formula for feeling secure in one’s identity and that so many people born in these circumstances experience similar confusion and inner conflict as I have done.
I’ve had all my life to understand who I am, to have therapy and counselling, to contemplate and analyse the contradictions and confusion I seem to cause in other people’s minds as well as my own. I’ve mostly only ever been confused by other people’s confusion about me. But now I see how the whole world is struggling to figure out who it is. Are we a global community or individual nations or both or something else altogether? You can talk about economic and political policies but there is no counseling, healing or therapy for nations or communities feeling deep frustration about who they are and who they are becoming.
Our identities are constantly changing and evolving. In our individual lives, we experience many different phases of growth and life experience. Depending on the roles we play out (such as job titles, marital status, interests & hobbies, personality traits & moods, health, status, personal values, family heritage, fashion sense and so on), we can swap and change our identities on a daily basis, much like an actor does when they walk on stage. It’s not even intentional or conscious most of the time. But you are not the same person you were when you were five years old, or even five years ago, maybe not even five days ago. Life can change dramatically in the blink of an eye.
As individuals we often struggle with the natural evolution within our own lives. We often hit points of personal crisis and label them things like “quarter-life” or “mid-life” crisis, but it really all boils down to the same need: there are simply times in our lives when we need to readjust our external identities to align with who we are on the inside. Yet we are ill equipped to do so. No one provides official guidance on this, you are not taught this at school. You might think there is something wrong with you and go see a doctor and they might give you medication, but perhaps all you need to do is to re-evaluate your life and your personal values. You wouldn’t wear a shoe that no longer fits you. Yet many people try to hold onto the labels and roles that no longer fit them anymore and it’s no wonder we might hit times of great frustration and pain. We don’t help each other when we have expectations of one another to be a certain way either. Sometimes we struggle to let go of things and of people who we have associated with our identity and which we have lost through no choice of our own. There is a certain grieving process we go through in such times.
On a national or global level, this is understandably far more complex, but to ignore the evolution of a society’s identity and values is to invite frustration and pain on a global scale, which is indeed what history has shown us repeatedly over centuries. Yet there are still those that would continue to try and hold onto an identity that no longer fits the values or needs of their greater community. Society has been evolving continuously since it began and some of our biggest innovations and advancements have only been possible by the sharing of resources and ideas. Whether we are talking about the spice trade, the spread of the industrial revolution, the invention of gunpowder, steel, medicines or even the spread of illness, it is sharing in its broadest definition that has shaped our world.
If we follow the history of man from the evolutionary point of view, at what point in the time line do you stop and splice it and call this a national identity? This has been a matter of continual debate. Language constantly evolves and dictionaries are officially updated on an annual basis to reflect this. Yet society seems quite inflexible, or certainly confused, when it comes to reviewing its own identity. Perhaps we ought not to be fixated on the idea of identity itself, which is really a contrived outer reality that represents a set of values and dare I say, a soul of some sort.
I don’t have a solution to propose to governments, but I do have a suggestion for individuals during these confusing times. As someone who has dealt with the complicated issue of personal identity for over 40 years, I have learnt long ago that it is not the outer identity or masks that matter, it is whether we live our lives wholeheartedly and authentically. It is the only way through an identity crisis into growth. Like a butterfly, the change happens from the inside out, simply by being true to oneself.
My outwardly messy (or exotic) identity has been a blessing in so many ways. There were times I felt a victim of my identity, so often I don’t belong where others have their families, peer groups and other communities to support them. But this has actually also given me freedom to dare to express myself more authentically because I don’t have as much to lose as others. I have fewer people to let down, fewer expectations made of me. Not fitting into any particular box, I’ve been left unsorted to a large degree, left to just be me.
We ought to stop looking for external validation for who we really are. And we ought to stop thinking that all change and progress in this world is driven from the outside and from the top down. A government (and its politicians) cannot transform your life or society any more than it can make a flower blossom, or stop the bushfires. To expect external authorities to be able to fix everything is to disempower ourselves both as individuals and as communities. They have a role and they create a structure for society, but nothing happens without the people in it, without you. And these structures can and do change. Live your role as a citizen actively and wholeheartedly. Be the change you want to see.
It is worth spending time asking yourself who you really are as well. It seems futile to try to forge an identity for a community or nation if its citizens don’t even know who they really are themselves. If you follow your personal values, then one day I hope you will also see that this indeed changes the world around you.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see ourselves as a collective of butterflies, changing the world with the beat of our wings as we fly.