A sense of belonging and identity intertwine as distinctly human needs. I wanted to make some notes about some disparate thoughts on this topic to see if I gained more insight in the process.
Humans are social beings as are other primates. Yes, we are animals, we humans! And, as such, we are wired to find safety and belonging in groups. When I list groups I belong to, it awakens me to the fact of my connection with a vast range of the world’s population directly and indirectly.
I am (in no particular order) able, female, Caucasian, a mother, middle-class (whatever that means), a professional psychotherapist, an existential psychotherapist, a wife, a Londoner, born English, born British, an urban dweller, green eyed, politically left-leaning, private school educated, second generation immigrant, Jewish, atheist, card-playing, art-loving, anti-racist, environmentally conscious, overweight, late-middle-age, traveller, member of the National Trust, FaceBook liker, walker, nature-lover, carboot sale fiend, amateur cook, and more …..(can I quickly add I like upcycling and Stevie Wonder, the list just keeps giving….. oh yes, erstwhile budgerigar owner)………. within all these groups I have commonality with other group members, even if our experiences are distinctively different.
I’m feeling curious as to whether you are tempted to make your own list now. Do you find, as I have, that the list takes its own momentum? Do you, as I did, feel an opening to the world?
Typically, we have compatibilities with others in a myriad of ways and very often make connections with these groups directly or indirectly or even just occasionally and sometimes never at all.
Important to add that as with other people, whatever their self-definitions and interests and values, I share a range of human experiences current or past such as sadness, happiness, shame, regret, rage, disappointment, fear, disgust, anxiety, suspicion. These we cannot escape in our shared world of humanness; this is our existential lot.
What prompted me to land on this topic is my strong curiosity in how people self-identify and how important it seems for many to know their genealogical situation. Let me explain what I mean. For as long as I can remember, I have loved watching a TV series on BBC called Who Do You Think You Are? In each program, a famous person traces their family tree to discover their family origins. In one episode for example, a comedian of a rather ordinary background found he was related to Anne Boleyn (second wife of King Henry VIII). Other people have found unexpected roots, one leading to a relative dying in poverty in a poor house many generations back; another, a white English person, locating a native Canadian who was his four times great grandmother. The sprawling network of our histories is fascinating but, my joy and interest in these tales, are the responses of the celebrities as they discover their roots and how they become visibly and expressedly redefined by learning about this newly discovered family histories.
Would I be a different Laura if I learnt that my 5 times great grandfather were a sagacious religious leader in a small village in Russia? Would you feel differently about yourself, if you found out that your 3 times great grandmother had been accused of poisoning her husband? Or if any of your ancestors had been landed gentry or lost 7 children to malaria or had run away to Africa and lived with natives in the bush? I suspect the answer would be in the affirmative. Only recently I was looking through some old family photos I had found in the loft and felt strangely drawn to my ancestors; curiosity burned strongly in my chest; I was in a fugue for several days, poring over these faded black and white prints of younger versions of people I had known and many more faded sepias of people I did not known, but had been known I think by people I had known. A faint thread was virtually visible to me, linking myself to these enigmatic souls. Lost stories. Irrecoverable lives full of mystery and mundanity. Voices I would never hear and attitudes I could not be stirred by. Joys and miseries of these ghosts would never provoke me into empathy. Why was I seized by such strong emotions?
One of the basic premises of Gestalt therapy and psychology might help me find an answer in its focus on the impossible-to-translate-adequately-into-English word Gestalt. It approximately means “form”. As humans we make sense of the world by making things and ideas into forms that we understand. Let us look around us. We see things we understand to be three-dimensional, yet all we can actually see are lines. Here is a series of lines. But you see a cube. Knowing that lines makes a cube is very helpful if you are packing a box with books.
The relevance for us in terms of psychology is that we like to make a complete sense of our interactions with the world. If a reliable friend is late to visit you and you hear nothing, you might wonder what happened, whether there was bad traffic, an accident, whether their phone broke, whether they had forgotten, whether you had got the day wrong. When we find out the answer, very often we are relieved, because at least we are disburdened of uncertainty which is often not tolerated comfortably. When someone has been killed, often people feel the need to find the body. And if we were not curious, perhaps we would not be disconcerted by not knowing; and if we, as humans, had not striven to make meaning and try things out, then maybe we would still be living as other primates do and not in apartments, watching telly and eating MacDonalds (not the acme of human achievements! I need better examples. . So part of being human is the innate drive to make sense coupled with a curious intentionality towards the world we occupy.
In looking at my photographs, the limited knowledge that I had settled upon about my provenance and ancestors was dislodged; it took a few days to quell my need to know and readjust myself to a whole new realm of not-knowing and accustom myself to that. That is how I completed that particular Gestalt, suspending these people frozen in past time as am interesting mystery that has its own value per se.
I have had to the good fortune to meet many folk; many find their worlds to be an unsettling kaleidoscope. And this sense of unfinished business, the incomplete Gestalt is what they often seek to resolve or to be at peace with. And in doing so, they have needed to reevaluate their place in the world, and that often brings about a challenge to their identities.
There are three examples I wish to reflect on.
There is the man who had known from birth that he had been adopted. His adoptive parents were supportive and loving and espoused solid values. He went to be self-driven and achieved academically and built an exciting career. Attractive, wealthy, liked and validated, this man named Tom, was ever-aware of the fact he had been given up for adoption and that out there his biological parents lived or had lived. Tom felt impelled to see out his birth parents. You would think the Gestalt was completed for Tom when he tracked them down and established a good relationship with them both and their families. But, even though that Gestalt was complete, another persisted: How could they have given me away, how can I ever make sense of that? And another, for now she had two sets of parents: What is mother and father? What is son? Who am I as a son to my biological parents who did not bring me up and yet for whom I feel such a tie, which sits alongside lambent anger and upset? Who am I to my adoptive parents who were in grief at not being able to have biological children of their own and yet who nurtured me so lovingly?
My second example is from watching a TV show only the other evening. Stacey Dooley hosts a program called DNA Family Secrets. She met with a woman who knew she had been given for adoption at birth and had researched the background and discovered her father had thought his wife had had an affair and she was the offspring; because of this she was given away. The more important dimension to this unfortunate tale was that the father on her birth certificate had later murdered the mother. The adoptee, this woman was featured in this episode because she wanted to know for sure if the murderer was indeed her biological father. Eventually as it transpired with the marvels of DNA research, Stacy Dooley was able to tell her that her “father” was not actually her biological father. The relief this woman experienced was palpable; her own definition of herself was alterably changed from a woman who believed she might have had the genes of a murderer and, therefore, in her belief the bearer and transmitter to her children of evil, to a woman who was freed from that contaminated genetic fortune. Her identity was confirmed and affirmed. She was now at peace with herself (for now, as she said she was not ready to track down her biological father, but I suspect that day might come). Same woman. Different identity.
There are so many interesting personal histories of people feeling misidentified, classic examples are stories of those accidently switched at birth in hospitals, who never felt they fitted in, looked different, felt ontologically misplaced. But the last example I choose to reflect on here has its own sensitivies.
A girl was born to single white mother in Scotland who had had a relationship with an African man. The girl growing up was the only biracial person in her school, in the village, in the community. When she went out with her mother, people did not assume that she was her mother’s daughter because her skin was a different colour and her thick, dark curly hair was so different from her mother’s lank mousey coloured hair. She was conscious how people looked at her, not always in a friendly way, with interest. For her identity was a problem, she was always being othered as different. She could not experience her difference independently as she was always being defined by the other. This compares with someone else I know who feels different and has a sense of derealisation, looks in the mirror and does not recognise herself and feels disconnected from the world; her experience is internal and personal and not known or visible to others. This Scottish girl feels like an object of the public domain and is confused and upset and feels deprived of the possibility of finding an identity which is not tainted by her visible attributes. According to some, she is not black enough to be considered black. She is not white enough to be white, even though her whole extended family is white and her whole frame of reference from TV to literature and schooling and employment has been in the white domain. Her incomplete Gestalt is not belonging anywhere. She seeks out her African roots, but has no experienced cultural connection so while she feels drawn to this side of her heritage, she partially feels like an impostor. Had her father been present in her life, it seems of that sense of belonging might only have been partially mitigated, given the location of her upbringing.
Drawing the strands of this together, and on giving this some further reflection, I am confirmed that identity is complex and always in danger of being shattered or reconfigured, by an accident or discovery. Most of us have a resilience to redefine ourselves through reinterpreting our meanings of who we are, but some of us can get interrupted and sidelined by hankering after definite answers to our being that might never be forthcoming or are simply impossible to arrive at. Hard to overcome are some of the norms that society or environment imposes on us that can lead us to believe that we do or do not fit in and these can tempt us into the falsehood that our identity is one thing or another, good or bad.
When our worlds are turned upsidedown, in wars, pandemic, economic crisis, death, loss, becoming a parent, finding a skeleton in a cupboard, we discover the uncanniness of life, meaning that however sure we might have thought we were about our identity, it is a fragile, plastic, fluid formulation. But we need something of an identity to travel with us and it feels important, if elusive, even if it is changing, for it is like an organ that supports us in our necessary engagement with our fellow passengers in the world so we can fit in and survive. Identity is charged with urgency that we do not necessarily recognise until it is broken.