Channeling Richard Rohr: Is Our Current Political Moment Partly a Crisis of Identity?

Rake the muck this way. Rake the muck that way. It will still be muck. In the time you are brooding, you could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven.

— a Hasidic saying

I don’t know about you, but on top of everything else I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of brooding lately. There are so many things to be mad about, so many people to be mad at, so many opinions to be sharpened and voiced and defended, that sometimes you can forget that most of that is just a waste of precious time and energy, a distraction from the call of wild geese—the Spirit’s constant beckoning.  

Like most Americans I’ve been doomscrolling for months now, fixated on every wrinkle and minute development relating to the pandemic, appalled by our nation’s monumental bungling of the crisis, the ongoing tragic loss of life, and the slow-motion economic collapse unfolding before our eyes. Since the explosion of BLM protests in late May, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading about racism in America. Like a majority of my fellow citizens, I’ve been broadly supportive of the protests, which have forced a(nother) vital reckoning on race and inequality, a collective turning to face our conscience as a nation. Even more recently, I’ve been reading a lot about “cancel culture” and its discontents, digging through the heated arguments on both sides of that debate. It’s all made for interesting, if stomach-churning, reading.

Of course, none of it has been much good for my anxiety or productivity, and while such political engagement may be necessary on a large scale to bring about important political changes, intense cultural and political divisions are not exactly healthy for us all in the long term. There’s a lot to be opinionated—or tribal—about these days, and there’s little doubt that we’ve all been a bit on edge of late, stuck in a defensive crouch, like wet tigers ever-ready to pounce at perceived enemies in order to defend our egos, our tribal territory, etc. It’s not been a good look for any us, me included.

There was a fascinating long-form article by Thomas Edsall in The New York Times a couple weeks ago in which he discussed the findings of a recent academic paper called “Beyond Populism.” Here’s the excerpt from Edsall’s piece where he quotes and discusses its findings:

“Modern democracies are currently experiencing destabilizing events… including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media.”

Driving this destabilization… is the feeling millions of voters continue to have of being left behind, of “‘losing out’ in a world marked by, on the one hand, traditional gender-and race-based hierarchies, which limits the mobility of minority groups, and, on the other hand, globalized competition”…

Petersen and his colleagues found that those experiencing rising levels of frustration are motivated to turn to the relative extremes of the political spectrum reflecting “discontent with one’s own personal standing.”… When inequality increases, the issue of status becomes sharper, and “people will simultaneously feel that (a) it is important to get status and (b) that it is very difficult to do so.” In such a situation, at the extremes, “some people will feel that the use of fear and intimidation is an attractive shortcut to getting recognition.”

“People on the extremes of both the left-wing and the right-wing are likely to be high in dominance motivations… While such supporters may appeal to a number of higher-order ideological principles, a personal craving for status seems to be a key motivational factor according to our research.”

“Craving for status seems to be a key motivational factor”—doesn’t that ring true? I mean, doesn’t that ring true not just in our observations of other people—those crazy people on our feeds—but in our observations of ourselves? The article focuses on rising economic inequality and competition as a source of angst over personal standing or status, which of course it is, in part. But it’s also deeper than that. We crave status, we feel like we need it—not simply as a means to literally feed ourselves or our families, but in order to feed our sense of belonging and self-worth, to assuage profound anxiety in our own identities.

While there are certainly lots of important things to care about in the present political moment and lots of real systemic changes I would love to see, I wonder if, at the heart of our divisiveness, of the “culture wars” taking place between various identity groups, there is also a crisis of identity going on within us? In other words, beneath the politics and the economics, maybe what we most need is the warm embrace of a welcoming, loving community that values and affirms us, that gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. Or, better yet, maybe what we most need is the warm embrace of a knowing, loving, forgiving God.

Fr. Richard Rohr

This idea was crystallized for me recently by Fr. Richard Rohr. I’ve been reading an old copy of his book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer and what I’ve found is that even though it was published in 1999, he offers a pretty interesting diagnosis for what’s going on in our own intense cultural/political moment more than twenty years later. He begins thus:

On the very practical level today the problem is that we are dealing with Western people who have a very fragile sense of their own identity, much less an identity that can rest in union and relationship with God. Objectively, of course, we are already in union with God, but it is very hard for people to believe and experience this… People are trying to create identities and let go of boundaries who have no experienced core.

This “experienced core,” Rohr says, is a deep understanding of our true self or true identity in God. Prayer, for example, is at its heart “a profound experience of that core: who we are, as Paul says, ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3).” He continues:

Those who rush to manufacture their own identity often end up with hardened and overly defended edges, easily offended, and always out to create a new one when the last identity lets them down. They might become racists or control freaks, always afraid of the “other.” Often they become codependent or counterdependent, in either case living only in reaction to someone or something else. Negative identity is created quickly and sort of feels like life—thus many people, even religious folks, settle for lives of “holier than thou” or even hatred of enemies. Being over against is a lot easier than being in love.

Many others give up their boundaries before they have them, always seeking their identity in another group, experience, possession, or person. “She will make me happy” or “He will take away my loneliness” or the group becomes my substitute for doing the hard work of growing up. It is much easier to belong to a group than it is to know that you belong to God. Those who firm up their own edges and identity too quickly without finding their center in God and in themselves will normally be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue. Their identity is too insecure to allow any movement in or out. Their “Christ” tends to be very small, tribal, and “just like them.”… You have to have an ego before you can let go of your ego. Maybe that is why Jesus just lived thirty years before he started talking. Now we have young adults full of Yeats’s “passionate intensity” about doctrine and dogma and which group is going to heaven. This is to use God to shore up my nonself…

Healthy religion, true contemplation, will lead to calmly held boundaries, which neither need to be defended constantly nor abdicated in the name of “friendship.”

Of course people who are insecure in their identities would “be the enemies of ecumenism, forgiveness, vulnerability, and basic human dialogue.” That makes so much sense. There’s no reason to fear or resist dialogue with the “other” if we have deep trust in who we are. And yet, I have to wonder if the pluralism of modern society doesn’t in some sense damn us all to this fate of being insecure in our identities, at least early in our lives. To grow up in a radically multicultural society such as ours is to be continually exposed to many different kinds of competing identities—which in some sense is a glorious gift, and yet causes us to be, at the same time, thinly-rooted in any one identity. Perhaps this is a struggle we all must come through in order to taste the joy of a secure identity on the other side. It’s certainly not merely a modern struggle—Sts. Paul and Augustine didn’t exactly come of age in peaceful, stable, monocultural societies.

Rohr goes on to explain how being “centered”—having a secure identity—gives us enormous freedom, while being “noncentered” can make us pretty hard to live with. He writes,

[T]rue contemplatives… know themselves as a part of a much larger Story, a much larger Self. In that sense, centered people are [both] profoundly conservative, knowing that they stand on the shoulders of their ancestors and the Perennial Tradition… [and] are paradoxically risk-takers and reformists, precisely because they have no private agendas, jobs, or securities to maintain. Their security and identity are founded in God and not in being right, being paid by the church, or looking for promotion in people’s eyes…

Probably the most obvious indication of noncentered… people is that they are, frankly, very difficult to live with. Every ego-boundary must be defended, negotiated, or worshipped: my reputation, my needs, my nation, my security, my religion, even my ball team. These are really all I have to worry about because they are my only feeble identity. You can tell if you have placed a lot of your eggs in these flimsy baskets if you are hurt or offended a lot… [Noncentered] persons are always a hurt waiting to happen. In fact, they will create tragedies to make themselves feel alive.

I have to admit, some of that stings a little bit. Too often has my security and identity been bound up in “being right… or looking for promotion in people’s eyes.” Too often have I been “difficult to live with” because I was caught up defending every “ego-boundary” to protect my “feeble” sense of identity.

None of this is of course to suggest that human beings do not often have very legitimate grievances—things to justly be “offended” about—whether with respect to individuals who have hurt them or society at large. I in no way wish to minimize those grievances. As people like John Lewis have taught us, protest and political activism are often just as “holy” as any kind of prayer. Rabbi Heschel used to say that he was “praying with his feet” when he marched in the Civil Rights movement. The protest movements and tense political debates happening today are not merely the result of some deep insecurity in our identities. 

But I do think that insecurity is an important factor in how we are relating to one another, in the hostility and boundary-policing that we are seeing—and exhibiting. Rohr wants to point us to the source of a stabler kind of identity. He wants us to remember who we truly are, or rather, whose we are, that the only solid ground on which our identities are ever truly built is God. As the Psalmist puts it, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer… in whom I take refuge.” Barring that realization, our identities are always going to be fragile, glittering palaces built on sandy ground. Rohr concludes:

I believe that we have no real access to who we really are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are… Only when we live and see through God can “everything belong.” All other systems exclude, expel, punish, and protect to find identity in ideological perfection or some kind of “purity.” The contaminating element always has to be searched out and scolded. Apart from taking so much useless time and energy, this effort keeps you from the one and only task of love and union.

In other words, all this brooding isn’t helping us—it’s just raking the muck this way and that, when we “could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven.” Of course, as Rohr assures us, “We do not find our own center; it finds us.” But in the meantime, perhaps we could spend a little less energy on all this hotblooded jostling for status and security. Our only true identity is in God.

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