The Spirit of Identity

The Spirit of Identity


The complicated issue of identity.

The movie “Green Book” has been deservedly praised for its humor, dramatic intensity, and depiction of race relations in the early 1960s. It also offers food for thought on the complex issue of identity.

The heart of the story is a relationship that was as rare in 1962 as a female CEO: A white man with an African-American boss. That’s not the only thing that’s topsy-turvy. The black employer, Don Shirley, is an erudite, multilingual musician with three doctorates and an apartment above Carnegie Hall packed with museum-worthy art objects. The driver/bodyguard he hires for a tour of the Deep South is Tony Vallelonga, a thuggish, poorly educated Italian-American from a low-rent Bronx neighborhood who's been laid off from his job as night club bouncer. If the set-up weren’t true it would be rejected as too implausible.

Once they hit the south, the reality of their racial identities asserts itself. Don is still the boss with fistfuls of money, and Tony is still the lackey who needs the gig to feed his family. Outside of that dynamic, power and privilege revert to the social norm. Tony can stay in any hotel and dine in any restaurant; Don is restricted to "coloreds only" places except to entertain the white patrons. Tony can walk the streets freely and shop as he pleases; Don is the victim of Jim Crow laws, racist cops, and brutal hooligans. Tony’s living may depend on Don's cash, but Don’s life depends on Tony's privilege and muscle.

“Green Book” is a useful reminder that, like most important matters, identity is in some ways a complicated issue, and we would be wise not to oversimplify or get stuck in narrow perspectives. We should celebrate the fact that members of historically marginalized, stigmatized, and often despised groups are now standing tall and proud in their identities, demanding their places at the table. We should delight in the racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and other ingredients that comprise the savory gumbo of American culture.

We can do those things and also recognize that we each have multiple identities whose implications vary from one situation to another, and we invariably have certain things in common—from DNA to social status to professions to personality traits—with any number people in identity groups other than our own. We are both separate and connected, as the familiar Yin-Yang symbol suggests, with its small white circle in the black half and the black circle in the white half.

But let’s follow the nuances of identity further, to the contemplation of spiritual issues that are beyond the scope of Hollywood and headlines.

As every tradition teaches us, the Divine is both One and Many. As a reflection of that reality, the extraordinary variety of human expressions—both across identity categories and within each of them—should elicit in us the same awe and wonder that arises when we behold a sublime natural landscape. At the same time, recognizing the subtle commonalities we share with people who are different from us on the surface can elicit a sense of connection that expands our range of concern and compassion. By fully appreciating the intricate web of unity and diversity in which we dwell, we can move closer to seeing the Divine in everyone, as the Hindu salutation "Namaste" urges us to do.

To take it a step further, the mystical sages of every tradition have always urged spiritual aspirants to expand their perception of who and what they are beyond the obvious parameters of the individual self. It is wonderful to proudly identify with our race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or other meaningful markers. But those attributes do not define our essence any more than our role as a spouse or parent, doctor or carpenter do. The spiritual yearning of the heart eventually points to the realization that we are not just the personalities confined within our separate bodies, but linked souls in what Emerson called the Oversoul, or (to switch to an Eastern metaphor) waves of little selves in the ocean of the Universal Self. Our limited human identities are infinitely diverse; in our core Identity as spiritual beings we are One.

The recognition of that Unity evokes in us a sense of kinship that allows us to navigate the cosmic paradox—to embrace the esteemed identities we wear as we walk the earth and, at the same time, humbly salute our Identity as sparks emanating from the singular Divine Light. We can do both because we are both. Why settle for less?

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