‘It’s me’, my friend says, when I pick up the phone. If I were to answer, ‘Yes, but what do you mean by ‘me’, I imagine he might think I was having a nervous breakdown.
But it’s a question which preoccupies me, not as an egocentric fetish but as a moral concern.
Autonomy has become a modern God. ‘I am’; ‘I need’; ‘I want’. But who is this ‘I’? Maybe it isn’t one simple entity, me. Maybe, rather, it’s composed of many layers, and loves. Maybe it could become not just the driver of my wants and demands, but the source of intuition and compassion.
I’ve developed a new lesson for my course for teens on The Values That Matter. I put a Russian doll on the table, take out all the little dolls from inside each other, and ask: ‘If this doll is you, and these are the layers of your identity, what are they and how do they fit together?’ The discussion is vigorous:
The outermost doll is my name.
No, the innermost is my name.
No. What’s innermost is my heart.
‘What about being human?’ I ask. And ‘Where’s being Jewish?’ and ‘What about British?’
Jewish is on the outside. Then British.
No; on the inside.
No; Jewish is everywhere, through all the layers of me.
No; it’s being human which runs through all of me. Actually animal. Actually alive.
I might ask about family. ‘That layer is my parents: they made me’. Someone asks, ‘But who made them?’ ‘That tiny doll in the middle is Adam and Eve’, someone else says, only half facetiously, reminding me of the line, ‘We are atoms in the consciousness of God’.
I think of Hillel, the 1st century BCE sage, who begins his exploration of identity with the much-quoted assertion, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ People rarely cite the continuation, ‘But if I am just for myself, what am I?’ My connectedness with others is integral to who I am. Without it, I am just a ‘what’, a nothing.
In his next saying, Hillel develops this thought further: ‘Never separate from the community, or trust solely in yourself until your dying day’. I imagine he means both horizontal and vertical community: our dependence on and responsibility for our contemporaries, as well as our connection with the cultures of our ancestors. We belong to, and must learn from, both our past and our present.
I fantasize that none of this is lost on the class of teens. It certainly touches me, – and I’d thought I was the one asking the questions. Instead, those questions grow inside me.
Literature contains some wonderful responses to them. John Donne’s is among the most famous:
No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (Meditation XVII)
But my favourite is by Boris Pasternak, from his Zhivago poems:
In me are people without names,
Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
I am conquered by them all
And this is my only victory.
‘I am involved in mankind’, ‘In me are people without names’: that’s what I want my class to understand. It’s how I want to live.
If our ‘I’ was less full of me, if we had more space inside us for the lives and loves, the identities and cares, which compose us, – then both we and the world around us would be very different. Pasternak is right: that is our only victory.