Memory and Identity

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Remembering need not be about going back into the past so much as bringing the past into the present.  This can be an important concept for bereaved people who are exploring what have been called ‘continuing bonds’ with their loved ones.  With tragedies that do not involve the loss of loved ones, ‘moving on’ may mean working hard to leave memories behind – though that may be a lifetime’s work.  But bereaved people do not want to move on in that sense.  Their memories are treasures they want to keep and value.  What to do with those memories – how and where to keep their treasure – can be an important feature of the work of grief. 

We hear a lot, these days, about identity, as in the phrase ‘identity politics’ or at the personal level of respecting another’s identity.  In political terms it seems to be about belonging and therefore claiming your essential connection to a nation, or a tribe (a word which has come back into relevance in modern Britain), a class, or even a creed.  On the personal level identity is also about belonging and so maybe about family (including lost loved ones), community, or religion (your God, your faith, your tradition).  Remembering (sometimes rewritten as ‘re-membering’) is an important part of reminding yourself who you are and where you come from, maybe even a part of being ‘remade’.  Jesus, as exemplified in the Christian liturgy for two thousand years, says, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. 

The danger in all these searches for identity is that they can be, or can become under the wrong influences, exclusive and divisive.  In modern terms, we live in fear of Islamist terrorism, xenophobic attacks, vicious political polarisation and (even in Britain) tribal warfare.  In historical terms, wars have been fought for (misguided, coarsened) nationalist and religious purposes.  In the established faiths, tradition has a key role and is in part about a shared cultural memory.  In the history of Judaism and Christianity, the Jewish people have seen themselves as God’s people and – largely through remembrance and traditional festivals – sought to remind themselves that they are special, even superior.

In the Christian narrative, that exclusiveness is (arguably) superseded by the universality of Christ’s message – but, as was recently argued by Ben Ryan in an LSE blog, our world is characterised not just by Islamists (not the same at all as Moslems) but also by what may be called Christianists (not the same as Christians).  This is where religion or faith is taken over by populists and people are divided into cultural camps.  You’re either with us or against us.  In politics, democracy is now confused with, and poisoned by, populism, which simplifies and narrows crucial choices down to an ‘us and them’ debate.  Politicians, like misguided, usually fundamentalist, religious leaders, can divide society in this way for their own ends and their narrative can be superficially attractive, particularly to the insecure. But, as Ben Ryan suggests, the distinctions made by religious populists have little, if any, theological depth, and in other cases too there may be more symbolism than reality.

Maureen Lipman, many years ago, had the whole nation laughing in a television advert where she was beside herself with admiration for a nephew who, with mixed results in school exams,  had nevertheless acquired ‘an –ology’!  I wonder if we, as mature adults, some of us in what Jung called ‘the second half of life’, should beware not of ‘ologies’ but of ‘isms’ that we might fall into without realising.  The world is not black and white, and neither is it always black or white.  We shouldn’t need to secure our identity by identifying exclusively with one ideology or cause, however strong and deep-seated is the pull of belonging.  

Populists define themselves ‘over against’ those they think don’t belong – Trump’s America may be one of the worst examples of that, but our more tribal British newspapers use much the same language.  We’ve seen the recent rise of populism in Italy and Hungary on our own continent and we know where that leads.  Humanists – following another contrived ‘ism’ that divides unnecessarily – believe, as any decent person does, in goodwill and altruism; but even that worthy cause is sullied by the apparent need of some to reject religion, as if Christian humanism (for example) did not have a long and moral, if spiritual, tradition.  

Beware of being labelled an ‘-ist’!  Cultural memory, identity verging on ideology, democracy turning into populism … Shared memory ought to be about participation, not division, and identities can be multiple and positive, and should be about giving and sharing, not taking and building walls. 

djms   17 xi 18 

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