It was inspiring to watch the Olympics last month. So many athletes from hundreds of countries around the world pushing one another to achieve their greatest potential. Seeing all of the different flags being waved around the stadiums made it evident that many of us feel a very strong sense of national pride and patriotism. For me, it also raised the issue of identity. When one feels such a powerful sense of "us," what does that do to "them," the outsiders in the group? Isn't the ultimate goal of the Olympics to bring people together rather than increasing the divisions between people and countries? Does having a strong identity, whether we associate ourselves with a country, or a group or a religion, necessarily mean that we have to exclude others in the process?
I've been reading two different books (at the same time) that touch upon this topic. The first is entitled Defending Identity, and it was written by Natan Scharansky, a political dissident in the former Soviet Union. He claims that having a strong identity as a member of the Jewish people made him more resilient and able to withstand the physical and emotional torture inflicted upon him. In fact, he says that he bonded with and drew strength from other political prisoners who had very strong identities, even when those identities were very different from his own.
The other book is entitled The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, and it was written by the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler. In this book, the Dalai Lama talks about the paradox of defining one's individuality while still embracing a common humanity with every human being. The Dalai Lama talks about how different cultures develop and adapt to their own unique surroundings, and that differences in language and customs are about as important as the clothes we decide to wear each day. They should be appropriate for the elements, but they don't define who we are at the deepest levels.
I like to think of each of us as being made up of different circles of identity. Rather than an either/or situation where we have to say we are either a Jew OR an American OR a teacher OR a musician, I think it might be more productive if we can picture our identities as ripples flowing outward from ourselves. Perhaps we can define ourselves as individuals, AND as members of a family, of a community, of a city, a region, a country, a world... and realize that each of us and every other human being in the world is also made up of these same layers. We might be able to respect and even celebrate our different identities rather than using them to separate us from one another.
ps. I had the honor of singing the National Anthem for my first time at an Oakland A's exhibition game this past week. Here's a link to the YouTube video:
I'll be singing again when the A's play the Dodgers on Wed., March 24th at 7:30pm at Phoenix Municipal Stadium if you are in the area and want to catch the game.