On Thanksgiving Monday, a relative emailed a photograph of a postcard my great-grandfather Robert (“Bobby”) Fyfe Easton Paterson received from the young woman Catherine (“Kit”) Hill Cobb who would eventually become his wife. Seeing it confirmed my sense of Scottish heritage. Later in the day, my eldest daughter, Emma, told me she was impressed by the statement in the worship bulletin from Church on Sunday that showed appreciation to the Indigenous People who walked this land before us. I, half-jokingly, reminded her that maybe the Indigenous People who walked this particular land might not be very happy that we, as unofficial members of the Nulhegan band of the Cosook Abenaki were living on their land.
“I don’t choose to identify myself as Indigenous … I’m only an ally,” she said. I was taken aback.
Who are we? Who gets to decide our past, our present, our future?
Later on, as we drove to the train station so that she could get back to university, we also remarked about genetics: how each person gets exactly one half of their DNA from each parent. But what makes genetics so amazing is that each half is (seen from the point of view of science) arbitrary, or (from the point of view of faith) fated. I have two daughters—each have half of their DNA from me, half from their mother—but they are two VERY different and unique people. Similar, yes. At any time, one is like me; at another, like their mother; at another, like their British nana! Each one a unique gift to this world.
But who am I? Am I a white, straight, North American male: the oppressor, the privileged 1%? Am I the diabetic with hearing loss and slight depression? Am I the reverend: upright, moral, pillar of the community? Am I Blair: who speeds too often, eats too much, sometimes is a little too judgey of the people around me?
In the world we seem to be living into, a person’s identity is as fluid as the twitter handles, email addresses or emoji icons we text. We boldly proclaim: “This is who I am” and with our inside voices quietly chant “for now.” What I think is lost in our brave new world is the question Jesus asked of Peter and the other disciples: “Who do YOU say that I am?”
Because in this brave newer world of internet and identity politics we forget that who I am is (and has always been) tied - at least somewhat—to who YOU say that I am. I am never “I” in isolation; I am only an “I” because there is a “you.” This is summed up very nicely in the southern African philosophical idea of Ubuntu, which (as I have been taught) means, “I am who I am because you are who you are.”
Yes, I know I have ancestors who are both Scottish and Abenaki. Yes, I am white and straight and slightly diabetic. I know this. But I can’t really be who I am without you being who you are. I know that there are an awful lot of people who have been hurt, physically, mentally, socially, spiritually by others; others who have stripped them of their identities and forced new ones upon them. This is wrong, and needs to stop. But so too do I have to curb the idea that I can unilaterally determine my identity.
John Donne was right when he wrote that no one is an island, no one alone. Somehow in the dynamic tension of selfhood and being a member of the community, we become who we are. It is by chatting with the Muslim employee at the local Subway restaurant that I come to know that not all Muslims are terrorists. And I come to know this because Moe is a great guy who sometimes happens to give me extra pepperoni on my pizza sub.
And I learn that not all Christians are bigoted misogynists as they are portrayed in so many late night talk shows, and from the talk of the President of the U.S.A. I come to know this because Harold, who (when alive) was a pretty outspoken man when it came to minorities and social issues but went to his lesbian daughter’s wedding and showed the pictures to all his friends.
Now, I’m no Cassandra. I don’t think it’s all cake and ice cream, live and let live, yada yada. It’s just that I’m not convinced that I alone can get it all right with who I am. I can’t see all sides of me. I need others to help me learn those parts of me. And I may not necessarily like it, but I have to learn to trust. Because, someone else is hoping that I help them find out who they are—what their identity is—at least in part.
I know that a one page blog isn’t going to really cut it. But it’s a start, I hope. Reminding young party-goers who wear eagle-feather headdresses that that is not a part of their identity is a start. Helping struggling young white men that Naziism is not their heritage, but the work ethic of their German grandparents is. Well, that’s a start too.
And helping young Dene and Blackfoot and Algonquian women and men to find their grandparents teaching and language, I think that maybe that can be a part of it to. Because I hope that the mistakes and horrors that one generation perpetrated, the process of correcting those mistakes and healing the wounds can be started with another.
Who am I? Who are you? Well, why don’t we sit down with a cup of coffee and a leftover piece of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and we can tell each other our stories. Maybe we’ll find out something about each other.