Memory & Transcending our Identities

I have this very vivid memory cataloged somewhere in the file folders of my brain.  Every now and again, a word, a story, a picture, a something evokes a recollection of this event.

I was at the Dallas airport, which like the city itself, is sprawled and, thus, requires a tram to transport passengers to various gates around the building.  As busy as the airport was, I was fully engaged in my own world.  I had my iPhone earbuds lodged into my ears while I listened to music (probably Modest Mouse – I’m not sure why but Modest Mouse is great airport/traveling music). My left shoulder had a computer bag strung over it and my left hand was placed upon the bag to keep it from rocking back an forth.  My right hand was holding a typical black carry-on rolling suitcase, which was trailing behind me like a small pet composed of what I deemed my necessary belongings.

I boarded the tram and found a seat located at the very front providing a landscape view of the massive airport facility.  I was enjoying that view when, the moment before the tram’s door closed, a family boarded.  The youngest in the family, a boy of approximately five to six years old, ran to the front and sat down beside me.  I appreciated that he appreciated the view.  He sat perched on his seat staring out the window mesmerized by the mammoth (everything is bigger in Texas) assembly of planes, baggage crews, and runway.  As the tram started, however, the young boy was startled.  You could see mixed looks of fear, anxiety, adventure, and first-timeness all evidenced in his facial expression.  His quick response was to simply lay his head upon my knee.  Without much thought, I simply laid my hand on his shoulder as a way of offering some comfort and relief to his anxieties.

That moment…Two strangers engrossed in a shared experience and acknowledging the others’ existence and value…That fleeting moment.

The boy lay still.  No verbal communication required. Only the affective nature of an event resonating with me. That ordinary event broke into extraordinariness.  It was stored in my memory for the purpose of recall.  It obtained enough value, which even if involuntarily, caused my mind to secure it.  My mind registered images of the events.  And the event was indexed to…what exactly?

Then the boys’ mother, who was standing holding onto the rail, said, “Sorry, he’s autistic.”  I raised my hand and my Southernness broke forth. “He’s fine,” was my counter.

Yet something was lost after the mother interjected her explanatory statement.  An identity was pronounced:  “He’s autistic.” A singular identity announced.

The multiple identities, which I attempted to sideline in the retelling of the story, emerged.  And there were many identities intersecting during the episode:

  • Adult/Child
  • Black/White
  • American/African
  • Father/Son

But in the instance, as I recall, I’m not sure they mattered (or that I wanted them to matter?).  For quite possibly, for that cursory moment, we were simply humans.  Humans interacting. Humans innocently interacting.

I tell this story because, for me, it truly brings an understanding of the simplicity of human potentialities.  In fact, the evocation of the memory always seems to produce a smile.  I’m thankful for such fleeting moments.  Moments that remind us that our shared humanity is the ultimate connection we have with others.

Fast forward: Lately, I’ve attended multiple interfaith meetings.  This has been a great way to ground me locally as I transition to a new city and school.  But, (maybe because all is new to me) I’ve noticed an inherent dependence upon identity, especially religious identity. For instance, as speakers are introduced, they are announced by their name immediately followed by their religious identity.  Within interfaith structures this makes sense, for participants attend and intend to discover more about other religions or for cultural expansion.

But the synthesis of my initial story evokes a question: is the primacy of religious identity limiting for interfaith meetings/movements? Let me give example of what I mean.  At a recent discussion consisting of panelists of differing faiths, each panelist was introduced as I described – Name + Religious Identity.  All of the panelists appeared satisfied with this introduction except one male who appended his introduction.  His response to his introduction was, “I’m Muslim and I’m African-American.”  So, for this participant the interfaith identity paradigm, based upon a singular identity, failed to fully encapsulate how he understood himself.


“Sorry, he’s autistic.”

[The mom apologized for a singular identity.]

“I’m Muslim and I’m African-American.”

[The man re-introduces himself by constructing beyond the singular.]

We are more than our religious identities.  We need to start intentionally asserting this at interfaith meetings. The singularity powerfully circumscribes our efforts to engage at multi-layered experiences.

This circumscribing forms an exclusive barrier for those maintaining no religious tradition.

Each of us is an assemblage of experiences, knowledges, identities, potentialities, and possibilities – past, present, and future.

Let us work to recognize our complexities.  Let us do the hard work of realizing and announcing our shared humanity.

Image from Wikicommons from the book The Human Body and Health Revised by Alvin Davison, published in 1908 by Alvin Davison. This book has a copyright of 1908 by Alvin Davison and one in 1924 by American Book Company.

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One thought on “Memory & Transcending our Identities

  1. Yes. Beautiful. This circumscribing based on singular identities also excludes those with complex religious identities, especially those of us from interfaith families. Thank you.

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