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  • benjaminnewman01

Mod. 3.2 - Ritual of Regard; Identity Mandela

This week, I invite you to reflect on your identity mandala via the following prompts in your course journal by whatever creative means inspire you:

  • Take some time to reflect on who or what has contributed to your identity, how it’s evolved, and what has contributed to this evolution.

  • Solidarity is the willingness to act in concert with others based on shared values. As you reflect on your mandala, to what extent do you feel your values and social identity are conducive to collaborating across difference? How might these qualities be helping or hindering change within your case project? Are there any qualities you’d like to dial up or down in service of transformational change?

 

My identity is the foundation of who I am. I am an Armenian, Jewish, Queer man. Homeschooled and raised in the Jewish suburbs of Metro-Detroit with nine brothers and sisters. The grandchild of a deaf couple on my mom’s side and a-barely-escaped-the-Holocaust Freedom Fighting emigrée brought to the U.S. by a WWII Vet and product of Detroit’s foster system on my dad’s. The recipient of a smorgasbord of Armenian Orthodox, Evangelical Calvinist, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Zionist, Conservative, Macrobiotic, and Midwestern cultural influences and values, I decided to be gay at the age of 5 because that was the only element that wasn’t represented on the plate. (I’m totally kidding about the decided part.)


I grew up closeted in what was already a very complicated, multi-cultural environment, and that made me the target and butt of all kinds of harassment and mean-spirited jokes from my older siblings. By the time I grew up, I had developed so many coping mechanisms and survival skills just to appear “normal” that I didn’t realize how unique my upbringing was until I started dating men in New York City. The moment it all came to a head for me was after I survived a train crash 5 days after my 27th birthday in the spring of 2015. After that experience, it seemed like all of the different pieces of my life fell into place and solidified inside of me. I survived the crash and escaped severe injury and death. So now I was going to live my life to the fullest.

Rather than go into intense detail around all of these elements, I’d prefer to share where this journey has led me and why. My dad is a theologian and a teacher. Within the Enneagram personality spectrum he embodies the Type 1 personality sometimes nicknamed “The Reformer.” He is consumed with ethics and morality, and sees the world in absolutes, blacks and whites. Growing up under his tutelage he would often describe the impact of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s & 70s as the cause of the growing moral crisis in America. Over time, I learned that the Sexual Revolution was not only a response to the backlash and crisis from The Vietnam War, but the intense, rapid modernization of American culture and life, the Civil Rights Movement, and the subsequent questions of identity and life’s purpose that followed. My dad’s ethical framing would often lead to discussions of the “why” behind certain social movements, and in order to demonstrate competency and earn his respect, I also began to question. What I eventually discovered was that underneath the cultural, political, and social influence of The Sexual Revolution, it was a response to a deep rooted fear of sex in American life. The counterculture movement would be encapsulated in history books through events like Woodstock, clubs like Studio 54, and the influence of Eastern teachings brought to the U.S. by numerous white people who learned them on extended travels to China, India and Japan.

Fast forward to the next millennium and the idea of fear of sex within America’s current culture would be considered almost laughable. With the rise of the internet, mass consumerism, and a fixation on engaging with “taboo” it was only a matter of time before pornography became a fixture of American culture. With the fear of sex clearly defeated, it was only natural that a new fear, or perhaps one that was latent underneath it all along, would emerge. For American millennials in particular, the unconscious fear that would be etched into all of us came as we hid under our school desks while planes flew into the World Trade Center towers on 9-11. In addition to the tremendous loss of life and the 24-hour news cycle that followed for weeks afterwards, the unconscious perception of impenetrable security afforded by American freedom was irrevocably cracked and the fear of death took hold.

The cultural movements that followed such as the popularity of Emo music, which was defined by themes of self-harm amidst young love, or the rise of YOLO as a mainstream worldview, both speak to the ways in which many my age began to grapple with and reveal their unconscious fear of death. In my life, these themes showed up in high school where my best friend engaged in an extended period of self-harm fueled by her grandmother’s passing that only ended after a life-threatening episode in a Washington D.C. hotel during a class trip. After finishing my undergraduate studies, #YOLO took off with the Instagram craze and suddenly millions of people gained instantaneous access to innumerable images of hundreds of flawlessly bodied men and women in luxurious, tropical settings around the world.

As I started to follow the profiles of some of the most beautiful men I had ever laid eyes on, I realized that the intense grip of self-loathing and poor self-esteem I’d battled my entire life growing up closeted and overweight was being amplified with every double tap on an image of a shredded Adonis using the hashtag #YOLO. By unconsciously asking “What are you doing with your life if this isn’t you?” Instagram created a false expectation that “the best life” and only life worth living is a fantasy. The algorithm taps into our innate sense of self-worth and shines a spotlight on our unconscious fear of death by subversively questioning the validity of our current lived realities.

As I reflect on my mandala, I find tremendous strength in my values and how they appear in my life. But my values are built on the deep work of grappling with immense fears and personal insecurities in tandem with the intersections of my identity. My gut feeling right now is telling me that while there is great value in developing practices to find shared values with others to ameliorate collaboration across differences, it only hits the surface level and professional context for this kind of work. Watching the video about Nicodemus, Kansas framed the question of collaboration across racial differences as one of correcting a long-held misconception about Black identity. I certainly believe that is needed and true, but it also strikes me as a bit shallow. Underneath our values we find very real fears. If we don’t do the real and hard work of unearthing those fears, naming them, and removing their power, then I don’t think real lasting collaboration across differences can be achieved.

Our fears reveal what matters most to us in our lives and the impact of fear is shown in and on our bodies. Just like my case project is focused on reframing the narrative around what kind of relationships a society should build, value, reward, and encourage most, I believe the first step in that effort cannot be engaged unless we first engage with our unspoken fears about why the dominant culture purports the current relationship structure. We have to dig deep and realize that we’ve inherited and internalized so much misogyny, homophobia, and racism. I’m starting to see where the key to unlocking the building blocks for my case project are rooted in discovering tactics to unearth the unspoken fears so many people have that prevent them from changing. This work has very real life and death implications, and if we don’t address our collective fear of death and how we’ve allowed ourselves to become numb to its very real effects, then our fight to unravel the system and impact of White Supremacist, Capitalist, Patriarchy will not be successful.

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