“It is the symbolic codes of our first language and culture which provide the first scaffolding for the self and our first existential maps — ways of perceiving and organizing human and social experience through which, or within which, we can feel and think.”
Eva Hoffman, from “The Hubert Butler Annual Lecture,” 2017, Kilkenny, Ireland.
A young man came to see me suffering from what he described as an “identity crisis.” He felt lost and didn’t know who he was or what he wanted. His family had fled from their country of origin during a time of war and could no longer return without the threat of imprisonment or death. The country continued to be a dangerous place for foreigners or former citizens to return to. The young man had been born in the UK and had never set foot in the country where his family came from. He described the strange feeling he had when he was asked where he was from and could only answer that he was from the country of his family but had never been there. At the age of five, when his British teacher asked where he was born, he replied, “In a British Airways airplane.” This aptly portrayed his state of dislocation, of being neither here nor there, but truly in a no man’s land.
Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist now living in the United States, writing about her parents’ decision to leave Moscow for America when she was thirteen, describes the “syncope of emigration” as “the difference between discovering who I was… and discovering who I could be. … It was a moment of choice and, thanks to the ‘break in my destiny,’ I was aware of it.” (Gessen, 2018) Only when there is a break in one’s life does the question of identity and belonging arise. At these moments, we are faced with a choice — not only between past and present, between membership in one group or another, between geographically staying and leaving, but also a more fundamental choice that concerns our identity: who we see ourselves as being, what is it we believe in, and how we are perceived by others. The implicit defining relation between place, belief system, and identity is suddenly laid bare. This caesura creates a mental space within which we become acutely aware of how much our identity is linked to a complex network of loyalties, beliefs, and communities and the traumatic impact of losing these ties, leaving us in a state of diaspora, while opening up the possibility of redefining our identity.
A few years ago, I decided to revoke my US citizenship — a decision I felt I had to make for tax reasons, knowing I wasn’t going to return to live in the United States. I had been warned by a friend to expect an interrogation as to my reasons for wanting to revoke my citizenship based on the idea that I was betraying my country. As I walked up the steps to the embassy, I nervously rehearsed my reasons. Inside the embassy, at the administrative counter, I was asked to swear an oath on the Bible or by my word that no one had forced me to revoke my citizenship. I began swearing on my word, and as soon as I had finished, to my complete surprise, I burst into tears. As I left the embassy, a young receptionist, seeing how upset I was, beckoned me over to him and whispered, “You know, they say you can’t, but if you change your mind, you can come back.”
This moment vividly brought home to me the deep importance of what the country of my birth and my childhood means to me and how very painful it was to give up my entitlement to belong. Although I was rationally clear about why I had made this decision, emotionally, it made no sense to me. I was grief stricken and angry. I also felt I was betraying an intrinsic part of my identity, along with the values that I had held so dearly throughout my life. While many of us take our country of origin and what it means to us for granted, my act of effectively disowning my country made me powerfully aware that we all have some kind of national identity, whether we acknowledge it or not, and that this deeply affects not only our personal identity, but also how we see the rest of the world.
The experience of dislocation is obviously quite different for people who have had to renounce or flee their country of origin. For those in exile, the rupture with the past can be an overwhelming loss from which there can only be a partial recovery at best. Economic refugees, fleeing their country in order to survive and to create a better life, retain the possibility of future return or reunion, notwithstanding the reality. Political refugees, however, face permanent exile; they can never return to their country unless there is radical regime change.
But there is another form of rupture far more commonly experienced and more mundane and, therefore, less visible. It is the experience of political dissonance when one’s country’s ideology or ideals — the ideals one has identified with as self-defining and signifying national identity — become overtaken and denigrated by a new set of ideals. This happens at moments of political and social upheaval, when there is an emergence of radical change in the culture, a rupture with the past and its norms and expectations, whether conservative or liberal, regressive or progressive. Modern-day examples of this can be seen in the rise of the Third Reich, the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with the thawing of the Cold War and the fall of communism in East Germany in 1989, the recent wave of populism and isolationism in the United States, the rise of fascism in different parts of Europe, and the move toward the nation-state in reaction to globalization.
Although these political ruptures do not affect the geographical location or dislocation of where people live, they can profoundly affect their sense of belonging and their actual identity. The loss or attack on a set of beliefs that has formed the basis for people’s ideals and behavior provokes depression, alienation, and ultimately anomie within the group that has lost power. As one American psychoanalyst wrote, protesting against the US detention and separation of children from their illegal immigrant parents, “Today, I no longer recognize the country we live in.” ([quoted in “Children on the Border,” Phyllis Beren] US House of Representatives 115th Congress, 2nd Session) This sentiment is widely expressed by the so-called liberal elite in the United States against Trump’s authoritarian leadership and the overturning of American principles of justice and equality for all, freedom of speech, and the separation of powers. As populist and nationalist movements gain strength not only in the United States but in the UK and across Europe, large segments of the populations of these countries have become estranged, experiencing a kind of existential shock at the radical change occurring in belief systems and the denigration of democratic principles. Ironically, the backlash against the ruling “liberal elites” was fueled by a similar sense of alienation among the population who felt that their America had been taken over and altered by interlopers. Trump’s battle cry, “Make America Great Again,” voiced precisely this estrangement from an idealized image of America that many felt had been lost. The experience of estrangement is not unique to the polarization of political parties in the West.
The difficulty of leaving totalitarian regimes is often attributed to the difficulty of living within a system in which total care (or something approaching that) is provided in exchange for complete, unquestioning loyalty and adherence to higher authority. This seemingly alleviates the need to be responsible for one’s own life or thoughts. The Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, writing about the fall of communism, compares people’s experiences of their newfound freedom to the enforced release of the dancing bears of the Bulgarian Gypsies that also occurred at this time. He writes:
I learned that for every retired dancing bear, the moment comes when freedom starts to cause it pain. What does it do then? It gets up on its hind legs and starts to dance. It repeats the very thing the park employees are trying their best to get it to unlearn: the behavior of the captive. As if it would prefer its keeper to come back and take responsibility for its life again. “Let him beat me, let him treat me badly, but let him relieve me of this goddamned need to deal with my own life,” the bear seems to be saying.
Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, Penguin Books, 2018
Freedom is interpreted as overwhelming and frightening, with the mantle of individual responsibility too much to bear. Is this, however, a convincing argument for the bear’s reversion to old behavior patterns or the nostalgia experienced by people whose life under communism has ended? Is the rupture of an original attachment, whether it is to the Gypsy bear keeper or the state regime, not more a complex loss that is very hard to mourn and separate from? It is perhaps comparable to the extreme separation anxiety and guilt that is apparent with patients who have had ambivalent early attachments. If the original love object is wholly cruel and frightening, there is relatively little problem in rejecting it. However, even in extremely abusive relationships, there is more often than not some element of attachment that is experienced as life-giving and, therefore, necessary. In this context, rejecting the relationship can be experienced as not only life-threatening but, perhaps just as powerfully, as threatening one’s identity — an identity that has been founded on this particular kind of relationship. Any rupture in this relationship is, therefore, a rupture in how one sees and defines oneself, as well as how we imagine we are seen by others. This is not the same level of discourse as what it means to be free; it cannot be reduced to an experience of responsibility over oneself because “freedom” in this context requires the loss of a system of beliefs that have shaped and guided our sense of ourselves within the group we belong to. The Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, in her numerous interviews of Russian citizens witnessing the collapse of the USSR, depicts
the terrible loss of meaning and consequent angst experienced by so many people whose dreams of the future and vision of life had been so inextricably tied to the powerful ideologies of Leninist and Stalinist Russia.
We all have multiple experiences of belonging to various groups at different levels. Our first awareness of belonging is as a child in relation to a parent and then as a member of a family, however that is comprised. We also belong to local communities, towns, cities, and a nation, as well as having ethnic and religious affiliations. Someone may consider himself Muslim and American at the same time, and this may only become problematic, or even come into consciousness, when there is a conflict between belonging to these two large groups, as, for example, is evident in the rise of racism in the United States. But the reason why these conflicts are so disturbing and disorienting is that they touch the core of our identity; they split us not only externally, but they also create an internal psychic split and reveal to us how important these affiliations are to our sense of self and who we are. The split is not only between affiliations that come into conflict, but it is also, and more importantly, between the value systems and sets of beliefs that inform the individual’s ego ideal. When these are at odds, an internal splitting occurs that is hard to reconcile and threatens to place the ego into exile.
The concept of national identity may be thought of as a relatively recent historical phenomenon linked to the rise of nationalism and the idea of the nation-state, originating in the seventeenth century with the Peace of Westphalia. From this point onward, the nation-state brought together the political and cultural entities of large groups and established national sovereignty. We can think of the developing differentiation between political and cultural territories as a reflection of or coinciding with the growing social importance attributed to the individual, along with citizens’ rights and duties. Whereas prior to this, a part of one’s individual identity may have been located in smaller groups or tribes, with the idea of one’s country being more fluid and diverse, the concept of nationalism brought with it a more distinctive large group identity that melded with preexisting cultural values. This combination of cultural values tied to governance has shaped much of our current-day political thinking and behavior, and it has also formed the basis for our large group identities to the extent that it ranks as a “primary identity.” In describing national identity as “primary,” I am not saying that it has supremacy over other group identifications but that it is one of the principal ways in which we define ourselves and our relation to others. Our individual identity with our country stems from our primary experience within our families as part of large group. For many of us who have grown up within the embrace of the nation-state, this provides the largest and perhaps most significant overarching group that shapes and determines our lives.
“My country” is indeed an integral part of who I am. If we accept this, is this a fundamental reason why the erosion of the nation-state we are witnessing with globalization is so threatening, not only to large group identities, but to our own individual identity? The reversion to nationalism that is sweeping across the world may be seen as a kind of global identity crisis, taking us back to the safety of borders that differentiate us from others and sustain large group identities of the past. Are we in fact experiencing a new kind of dissonance in which the nation-state is being superseded by international corporations and our large group identities are in flux or, as with my patient, born in midair?
Excerpt from Coline Covington’s forthcoming book, For Goodness Sake: Bravery, Patriotism and Identity, to be published in 2020 by Phoenix Publishing House. ■
Coline Covington, PhD, is a training analyst of the Society of Analytical Psychology and the British Psychotherapy Foundation and former chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council. She is a fellow of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI), a think tank created to apply psychoanalytic concepts to understanding political conflict. She has written extensively on psychoanalysis and society, most recently Everyday Evils: A Psychoanalytic View of Evil and Morality (Routledge, 2016). She is in private practice in London. Her new book, For Goodness Sake: Bravery, Patriotism and Identity, will be published by Phoenix Publishing House in 2020.
(1) I am using the term “national identity” to mean an aspect of individual identity that is founded on being a member of a “national state,” i.e., a recognized large group occupying geographical territory and with its own system of governance and imbued with the cultural values and traditions of the country it encompasses.
(2) See, for example, Volkan, V.D. (2003). “Large-Group Identity: Border Psychology and Related Societal Processes.” In Mind and Human Interaction, 13: 49-76.