Identity Theft

No, I’m not talking about getting your credit card or personal information hijacked or your email hacked. That is a pain, and sometimes a costly one.

Rather, I’m thinking about identity as something more fundamental having to do with who at our core we understand ourselves to be. It seems to me that one of the challenges of our wired world and the multiple situations we find ourselves in is the loss of a sense of self in the myriad of identities we maintain and it may even be that we come to believe that our identity is this ever shifting, situational “something” that lacks any conscious rootedness.

Some of the challenge may be the pace of life. We may so frantically move from this online conversation to that phone call, to this family crisis, to that work project, to this entertainment experience, that we rarely attend to our inner world. Sometimes this frantic pace can be an effective strategy of muting that voice. And we often mistakenly seek to find a sense of self, a sense of identity in these things–work, family and all–and then are at a loss when these are taken away.

In a way, this leads to a possible definition of identity–what is it that cannot be taken away or be defined by situational factors, and are these generated by oneself or external to ourselves. And where can we go to find an identity that cannot be stolen?

This topic of identity came up at breakfast today at the conference I am attending as we discussed the pressures on students and faculty we work with on university campuses and the challenge of living an integrated life that has a sense of wholeness rather than the fragmented lives we often live.

As people of faith, we talked about our relationship with God as the reference point for our identity that makes sense of our inner worlds, our relationships, our work, and our life in the physical world. But I would be interested in how others who follow this blog think about this. Is it ultimate wisdom or a cop out to look to God for a sense of identity that cannot be stolen? How do you answer that challenging question of “who are you?”

The Question of Identity in Academic Life

Identity can be a challenging and confusing thing for anyone to sort out, and certainly this is the case in the academic setting. And part of the challenge is that we may be identified and self-identify in various ways. There is our race or ethnicity, our socio-economic class, our country and even city of origin, our gender and sexual orientation, our political persuasion, our academic status in terms of both appointments and achievements. And for the follower of Christ, there is one’s identification with Christ.

Yesterday was the last day of our Midwest Faculty Conference (I had many wrap up duties yesterday and travel today and so am just getting around to posting). As on other days, it seemed that our morning Bible studies captured an important thread of the day’s discussion. We looked at Genesis 50:15-26. Jacob, the father of the patriarchs have died and the brothers wonder if the reconciliation between them and Joseph will survive their father’s death. Will Joseph use his power as an Egyptian leader to retaliate for the fact that they sold him into slavery? So they concoct a message from Jacob on his deathbed pleading for understanding and they offer themselves as slaves.

Joseph weeps and says he would never do such a thing as they fear and that he will use his power to look out for them. But why does he weep? I think it is because the brothers act seems to reflect that they see Joseph as an Egyptian first, rather than as their brother and a fellow son of Jacob — an Israelite. Subsequently Joseph makes the matter clear. While he lives out his life in Egypt in service to Pharoah, his burial instructions specify that his body be returned to the land promised to Abraham when his people returned to that land. For Joseph, his Israelite identity was paramount and it defined his loyalty to his family and even his burial place. Yet he negotiated another identity, as an Egyptian leader, married by Pharoah to the daughter of a priest of an Egyptian god.

And this is the challenge of the multiple ways in which we identify ourselves, or others identify us. All of them are important. All of them have shaped who we are, how we see the world and relate to it, what we value. We can no more shed these things than our own skin. And sometimes, these multiple identities clash, and what do we do then? We heard of instances during the conference of conflicts where a university leader might need to implement decisions contrary to their faith commitments. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate and find a better way. And sometimes not, and what does one do then?

At least part of the answer comes from clarity about which identity is paramount and “arbitrates” among the others. Perhaps it is not always obvious, but it seems that for Christians, there can be no other “paramount” identity than one’s allegiance to Christ, and secondarily to his global people who are constituted of the whole mosaic of identities existing in human society.  Yet this does not mean our responses to conflicting identity commitments are simple and clearcut, or will be the same. How our commitment to Christ arbitrates with our other identity commitments might look different for different ones of us. The nuances of how a Christian faculty member might deal with academic dishonesty might differ depending on whether s/he (and the student for that matter) comes from a shame or a guilt oriented culture, for example. Yet the exercise of justice, truth, and grace in the context of university policy will be a common thread in each of these situations, one would hope.

What do you think of this idea of paramount identity as key to negotiating our multiple identities and the conflicts these sometimes place us in? How have you experienced these challenges and how have you responded?


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Diaspora

We went out to breakfast this morning at a local diner. We often do this on Saturdays before grocery shopping. We were served by a woman, who along with her mother who also works at the restaurant, are Youngstown natives. The woman mentioned her other job, on the wait staff at a nearby Italian restaurant, and so our typical Youngstown question was, “do they have good red sauce?” Somewhere in the conversation she also mentioned that her manager grew up in Struthers, and then called him over. A relative of his was the kitchen manager at the Elmton, a restaurant in Struthers and we talked about the old ladies who made pierogies at the Catholic church and other great places to eat.

This happens frequently to us. I know there are a lot of Youngstown people in Columbus. A local newscaster, a county commissioner, and judge have Youngstown connections. Via Facebook, I’ve discovered several high school classmates live here. And through previous posts in this series, I learned of others as well–along with the fact that there is a Wedgewood Pizza in the area, along with other Youngstown connected places like Handels, Belleria and Quaker Steak n Lube [Update: since this post was first written Wedgewood and Belleria have closed their shops leaving many Youngstowners in Columbus in search of good pizza one more].

The idea of “diaspora” is that of dispersion or scattering. It has been used most in history in reference to the Jewish diaspora. Often diasporas are forced, as was the exile of the Jews in 587 BC, and their dispersion after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some dispersions are for trade and economic reasons. This is a significant reason for the diaspora of urban industrial cities like Youngstown. Generation after generation thought they could grow up, get jobs in the community, and raise a family and stay close to parents and grandparents. And then it all changed.

Actually, a mini-diaspora began in the 1950s and 1960s as people started moving to the suburban communities around Youngstown for more spacious homes and better schools. Cars allowed us to commute into the city but the ethnic and economic mix of the city of Youngstown began to change. The fabric of neighborhoods started shredding. Downtown began to die as retail followed the area population.

Then 1978 came and with it the shutting down of the steel industry that had been Youngstown’s lifeblood and led to the collapse of many other businesses. And while there have been entrepreneurial people and other survivors who stayed, many of us either because of jobs we had or economic necessity moved elsewhere. Through this blog, I’ve come in contact with the “Youngstown Diaspora” extending from Columbus all the way to New Zealand.

One of the responses to my last Youngstown post, from someone in Oklahoma included this thought-provoking question: “I live in a beautiful city, clean and progressive much like Columbus. . . . So why are these memories so etched deep in my heart[?].” This haunting question seems to be part of the diaspora experience. Even though we may live in other places, we continue to feel a deep connection to our homes–the foods, the places, the personalities, the politics, the culture of this place we grew up. It is so odd, we’ve met people that we’ve felt a special connection with, only to find out that they are also from Youngstown, and off we go in talking about all these things. Through this series, I’ve discovered several Facebook groups of Youngstown natives and it is incredible the number of people and posts sharing both memories and current concerns! Youngstown is indeed etched deeply in our lives.

I think much of this is about identity. So much of who we are is formed in our early years, before we are 20. It seems true of me that you can take me out of Youngstown but you can’t take Youngstown out of me. I also think it is because we knew we had something very special in those years that had to do with home and a way of living, that we want to recapture. And some of it seems to be place, somewhere we had roots. It is a collage of visual memories of a good place that consisted of the glow of blast furnaces, the Home Savings tower, Christmas displays at Strouss’ and McKelveys, cookie tables at weddings, Handel’s, Lanterman Falls, Idora Park, and more.

I’ve discovered we Youngstowners are not alone in this sense of “diaspora”. I caught this TED talk on the Detroit Diaspora. I found a good deal I connected with. One thing that I’m wondering about because I haven’t heard this said by many from Youngstown is the idea of return. The longing for return is a big part of many diasporas. Jews will say “next year in Jerusalem.” And I wonder, and would love to hear from those in the “Youngstown Diaspora”, do you ever think about returning? And what would those of you who stayed think if at least part of this “diaspora” returned and brought the resources and experience gathered in other places back to Youngstown? Or is your form of return connecting with others in the Youngstown Diaspora, to return in memory to all that was good about that place we grew up?