16 May 2006

Scratching the Surface

GeraldA asked me to post this for him.

Section 1: Who Am I?

Identity can be defined one of many ways, but two definitions are profound, and somewhat conflicting. One defines it as, “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances,” the other, “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.”

In order for me to correctly identify myself and cite the most important aspects of personal identity, I have to take both into consideration. Generically, I am Hispanic, I am Christian, I am a New Yorker and a New Mexican, and I am an American. Essentially, I am a human being, I am a freethinking individual, and I am Christian. Individually, I am Gerald; I am a straight, male theatre major (which, in its own right, is quite an accomplishment) at SUNY Fredonia, I am a compassionate, kind, and respectful young man, I am struggling with most areas of my life and personality, and I am Christian.

Now, the task in writing this essay is to describe which aspects of my identity are most crucial. The shortest, most simple answer would be all of the above.

In the “generic and essential” areas lie very important “generic” categories. First and foremost, I am a freethinking human being. I see this as essential because, well, none of the rest would be all that possible without that element. The regions from which I hail, New Mexico and New York, have had a tremendous impact on me. The culture of New Mexico is the one I was raised in--specifically, a Hispanic household that places tremendous values on family. New York has imbued me with a sense of time. The pace of the two cultures is very different. It seems switching between the two has given me a sort of balance, making it easier to relax and not hurry when doing something, but to make haste when necessary. I identify myself with both these places for two reasons: one, I cannot deny my homeland. New Mexico is dear to me. With its rich and beautiful culture and landscape one can hardly deny the appeal it provides. New York also holds a certain beauty in its forests and land formations, not to mention the sheer amount of important historical events that have taken place here.

Then, of course, individuality comes into play. As a theatre major, I am pushed head first into the hardest business in the world--and I love it. Being an actor is one of the most important parts of my identity because actors display humanity at its most magnificently dramatic, tragic, and comedic moments. Portraying the struggles and conflicts people experience day in and day out often leads the actor and the audience to self-discovery. I can’t say I’m an exception. Identity as an actor can mean many things, but in this vision of myself, it means representing the harsh, wonderful truths of life.

Lastly, and most important to my identity, is my religion and spirituality. Born and raised Catholic, I never really identified with the religion. Of course, I went to Sunday school, learned my prayers, and read the Bible, but none of it meant anything. With the benefit of certain influences in my life when I was in middle school, I started to explore and practice Wicca. Over the years, this troubled me. My faith was stagnant, my spirituality was almost non-existent, and I felt like I wasn’t in the right place. Needless to say, I found Christianity again. I attended church every Sunday, and started exploring the religion more in depth. Now, I’m considering priesthood. What a turn-around!

My identity within Christianity is very specific. Accepting Jesus as my savior is defining in the sense that everywhere I go, in everything I do, I try to use him as a guide to my actions. As cliché as it may sound, “What would Jesus do?" strikes a chord deep within me. Jesus was all about love and compassion, caring for his fellow human being. As a way to live life, I think that’s just about the way things should go. I’m not saying everyone has to be Christian; I believe there are multiple paths to an end. But if people would take something from the message of acceptance and tolerance above all else, the world would be an infinitely better place. This idea of “love thy neighbor as thyself” has pitted me in many heated arguments and discussions over homosexuality, war, segregation, etcetera.

The title of this section, Who Am I, is taken from a Casting Crowns song. The lyrics say, “Who am I, that the Lord of all the Earth would care to know my name?” At the risk of getting a little too personal, this question has been plaguing me for years now. Recently I’ve come to some semi-concrete conclusions, but I do have a whole life of discovery ahead of me. This question defines me--who am I? Do I live the gospel as I should? Am I acting like a child of God? Overall, following Christ and believing in God’s promise has led me to this point in my life. It continues to shape and change me as I grow not only in knowledge and years, but faith and spirituality as well.

Section 2: Everyone Has a Past

Experiencing American identities firsthand is such a common occurrence that people don’t even realize it happens. The girl who sits in the back row in class might have been born in another country. That man sitting next to you on the bus could be heading home after a tour in Iraq. Your roommate might have had an abusive, alcoholic father. Everyone has a past, everyone has a history, and within this history lays his or her identity.

Perhaps the most profound, if not the biggest, experience I’ve had with another area of the country, another culture, and another stereotype of people was when I participated in a work camp in West Virginia. The first and most noticeable difference was the poverty of the community at large. The town, Oceana, was a mining town, so naturally the economy of the area wasn’t exactly bustling. Nestled in a small valley in the mountains, Oceana’s citizens were more than 45 minutes away from quite a few conveniences. While here in Fredonia we have the Wal-Mart just down the street, restaurants, clinics, shops and boutiques, this town’s main strip was comprised of two or three fast food places, a hardware/housing warehouse, a few small shops, and scant few businesses. Without much to do, this town’s education standards and average household income were well below the state average, while the poverty level and rate of crime were above state standards. As a community, the identity I initially gave it was negative. To be honest, I envisioned a town of largely uneducated hicks, leading lives that fit stereotypical images of small towns settled around a coal mine.

When my group arrived, Reach Workcamps had already been there a week fixing houses. There were some obvious improvements to the local houses, and others we heard about from the Reach staff. During Thursday’s worship session, after a hard day’s work, one of the red-shirt volunteers stepped up on stage during the witness talks. He shared a story of change in the community. Apparently, Oceana residents were wary of massive groups of inexperienced young adults fixing their houses. Our initial greeting from the community was lukewarm and cautious. But by the time two weeks passed, there was a noticeable difference in their attitude. People had become more receptive to us. It seemed as if an infectious sense of hope had permeated the dull and desperate climate of the town.

What does this have to do with identity? First of all, my interaction with our resident profoundly influenced my faith. He had formerly fallen from religion due to some people who called themselves Christian but didn’t follow the tenets of the religion. During our breaks and lunchtime, my small group talked to him and his wife about the area, about the desperation that accompanied being stuck in a dead-end town. He was on disability due to an accident in the coalmine, and had little to no hope of recovering completely, thereby making his chances of finding decent work little to none.

In this class we’re focusing on our own identities, who we are as Americans. But in being exposed to this sheer poverty, I’ve realized, and I’ll elaborate in the next section, that the community service part of it will likely be the most influential. This identity of an impoverished, deprived part of the nation is bigger than most people think.

Section 3: It’s Bigger Than You Think

When I think of America, initially I think of everything immigrants must have thought of in the late 19th century. America, the land of the free, a land of opportunity and hope, a land comprised of the most astute and honorable men. What is there not to love about this country? It is the most powerful and effective democracy in the world, giving its citizens the right to open a business and make a living for themselves. It fills me with the most just patriotism, the greatest pride, to know that I live in the United States of America.

And then.

And then I remember people; people like Tom Delay, people like John Ashcroft, Pat Robertson, and Dick Cheney. I remember corporations and affirmative action and the “Moral Majority.” I remember the party system, the corruption, the greed, and the self-righteousness we impose on other nations. I remember Vietnam, and the 58,000 boys of ours that died there. I remember injustices, the horrible foundations upon which this country was laid.

If one were to strictly take a look at the events that comprise this nation’s history, it would be view the United States in a positive light. The south’s adamant refusal to give up slavery until the “right” was forced out of their grasp is a prime example. Pushing the Native Americans further and further west and slaughtering them as we went along is another. Segregation, invasion, and self-imposed stupidity might lead on to believe that this country has a horrible identity, one of oppression and hate.

Of course, that plays the part of devil’s advocate. In reality, the amalgamations of identities within this great nation are infinite. Even though this is one of the most inspirational and awe-inspiring things ever, it seems that we’re lost in identity. Floundering in so many identities, it is hard to find who we are. It can be a struggle simply to find out which identities drag us down, if they can be identified at all. Before we can give America’s identity a specific definition, we have to at least examine the broad identities within it. You might call me Gerald, but that doesn’t mean anything; it’s simply another label. Without examining what’s underneath, there is no conceptualization occurring with the name Gerald. These concepts are what make me… me, not just the name.

I believe that issues need to be addressed. Poverty, social security, old people, young people, college people, rights, laws, abortion, homelessness, and hate are timeless issues that the media seems to identify as parts of America. Inner struggles continually plague us as a people. However, when we need to, we can band together. After September 11th, everyone, regardless of identity, came together in support of the victims. We bonded as a nation and took pride in what we stand for (though no one is quite sure what that is).

This, I think, is what America really is. Deep down, buried underneath the layers of politics, religious righteousness, and corruption, the United States’ identity is one of liberty and hope. Now: to find a way to scratch the surface…

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