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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Who am I?

Who am I?

When I was in graduate school, back in the 1960s, there was great interest in what the psychologist Erik Erikson called "identity." Who am I? The term "identity crisis" was common--young people drifting around not knowing who they were.

My theory: my identity is my story. Or, more accurately, the stories of the groups of people who have influenced my life.

Catholics have been the center of my story, starting with the parish of St. James in Decatur, Illinois in the 1940s. The story of that group of people has been more important to me than, for example, the story of the residents of Decatur. Decatur was mostly Protestant. Decatur was not my story.

My race has not been part of my story. Being white has been to me like the water to the fish. There is no story involved. If I had been born black in this country, my black community, as black, would have been very important in my story. If I had been born into a black church family, that church family would have been important too. It might have been more important than the racial group; my Catholicism story was the story of a minority amid a majority Protestant city. Maybe a black child's church community would have been more important in that child's life than being black, because the church story would have shaped the experience of being black in a majority white society.

If I had been born to a single mother with few ties to a larger kinship group, my story would have been that mother's story. The story would have included the events that led to the mother's being isolated--perhaps she had gotten pregnant and been rejected by her family. Perhaps she was a nonconformist and was rejected for the same reason. Perhaps she herself had been raised by a single parent who did not have the time or experience or resources to groom her for entry into a school. So her story would have been a story of being left alone a lot, without relatives, going to a school where she was not doing well and where perhaps most of the other children were in the same situation she was in. Gradually their stories would have become her story.

A story gives you "scripts," plans for little scenes in life that you can follow. For example, how to relate to a teacher in school, or to a policeman. How to deal with a parent who is living with a partner who is not your biological parent. How to react to abuse by a parent-figure.

Examples of the scripts in my story: how to answer the sister who was teaching me in school. How to serve Mass in the parish church.

After eighth grade I entered the Franciscan seminary. The Franciscan community became part of my story. It eventually became the most significant part, even after I was ordained a priest.

The Catholic and Franciscan communities each had their own stories, and as I studied history, I became part of the stories of the Christian and Catholic community, and of the followers of Francis of Assisi.

I was also an American, and the stories of the founders of our country were important to me. The Second World War was in progress as I began grade school, so I lived the story of the heroes who gave their all to defeat evil enemies like the Germans and the Japanese. There was a book titled They Were Expendable, which I found inspiring. It told the stories of men who offered themselves to be chewed up by the enemy because the larger cause required that sacrifice.

If I had been born to a Native American family, what would my story have been? I would likely have been taken from my parents when I began school. The official policy was intended to prevent me from learning the story of my parents and their stories. I would have been story-less. Perhaps the teachers could have tried to help me relate to the stories of Christian saints, but when you do not know the stories of your own parents, I would think it would be hard to own another story.

As I sit here reflecting on all the people who have become part of my story, down through the centuries, a feeling of comfort comes over me. I know who I am. The people who shared those stories with me have given me a great gift.

Pope Francis talks a lot about "evangelization." The word has taken on a negative connotation in my society, as meaning "trying to get others to join your church." Perhaps it should simply mean "sharing stories of your church community with people who might be helped by those stories."

Being bathed in stories is being bathed in membership in communities that extend far beyond my immediate time and place. It means we know who we are. Being bathed in stories is a great gift.