Friday, 27 April 2007

Unstable Selves: Life in the Global Village

I had lunch in the park with a friend of mine. He's an unusual character - or at least made up of lots of different, and some might say not-entirely-compatible, influences.

His Turkish background makes it difficult for him to be gay. And yet it also makes it difficult for him to feel fully European. As a result of these identity conflicts, we concluded, the idea of belonging anywhere is illusory. Maybe that recognition is why he feels so free to go wherever in the world a job might take him. 8 years in Belgium, he says, is long enough for one lifetime.

As this experience illustrates, anyone who has ever stepped outside their national or cultural boundaries to a meaningful degree will discover that home, which was once so physically real, suddenly exists as no more than tempting nostalgia. Once you start bringing new influences, priorities, and understanding into your life from diverse sources, it is almost impossible to go back - simply because you are not the same person that you were before. And home itself will not recognise you.

So our selves shift over time. Indeed, that is what the transition from childhood to adulthood has always implied. But if that shift occurs in a framework of competing influences, it can create a sense of profound dislocation. Either we stop resisting change, and become creatures of circumstance who exchange costumes and personae with each curtain call. Or we live exclusively within our own little communities. Brussels may be marginally warmer, less efficient, and have better food, say, than the UK, but that doesnt stop many English Exiles from being as determinedly English as ever, since they've never allowed the place they refuse to call home from impinging on their consciousness. Other approaches are never really called into question because they are relegated to the margins.

Both choices, it seems to me, have significant implications for our sense of self. Clannishness suggests that our identity is fixed ad infinitum by the influences - however arbitary - of our childhood culture (in my case this seems even more ridiculous given the fact my parents only moved to the country of my birth by accident) . Chameleonic tendencies, on the other hand, suggest that there is no self beneath the surface, just a system of learned responses to deal with, and render comprehensible, the environment around us - and thus no real value.

The only alternative to this - admittedly nihilistic - vision is synthesis. That is to say, the process of interrogating, weighing and ordering competing influences which are then incorporated into our changing selves in new and unexpected ways. This, in turn, leads to an understanding of the self as a fluid entity which is constantly calling itself into question and renewing itself. But that creates its own challenges. And the most major of those is to be prepared for the isolating effects of an individualism which can divide you from your origins but, as my friend maintains, is also the price of freedom.

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