Refugee Identity: dreaming new roots for the self

A dream of meeting God reveals much about the roots of identity in a precarious world.

Refugees call identity into question. Fleeing home, they have to leave behind the familiar society that confirms their identity. After all, the self is not a thing, but a social process. You can’t drop off your self for an oil change. Recognition by others, even a simple exchange of “Hellos,” mutually substantiates identity. In an adoptive country, refugees can be strangers, perhaps suspicious or sinister. They may feel abandoned, and remind others of the threat of isolation or even social death.  Without trying, that is, refugees can get you thinking about identity.

I’m reminded of a workshop I offered in 1993, at a grammar school in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia. Rimmed by the Tien Shan mountains across the border in China, Taldy Korgan had a functional look rathe than a distinctive personality. Instead of a jungle gym, the playground of the the brick elementary school had an old Soviet fighter jet.  Otherwise the school could have been in Abilene Kansas. The USSR had come apart, the Cold War was over, and the first Peace Corps volunteers were helping with language programs in newly independent countries such as Kazakhstan.

Stalin had exiled many Russians to Kazakhstan, and their descendants thought of themselves as Kazakhstanis. As managers, they kept institutions running. The country was mostly Russian-speaking, but parliament had passed a law specifying that to hold onto your job, you had to speak Kazakh—which only 40% of citizens spoke. The idea was to affirm Kazakh identity, but also to redistribute jobs and power to native Kazakhs. Not surprisingly, there was a subtle rumble of panic among Russian-speaking folks who suddenly could see themselves as unemployed refugees.

The workshop participants were two dozen teachers of English, mostly women in the 40s, two-thirds of them native Kazakhs. Some of the Kazakh women had Central Asian features, but at first glance the group was a blend.

To start, I invited them to tell us about any sort of problem they’d encountered lately. At first they were tongue-tied.  Gradually, one after another they talked cautiously about students, teaching, and caring for their own families. But then a blonde woman I’ll call Tatiana spoke up and sent a ripple of concern through the room.

“My problem,” said Tatiana half-jokingly, “is that in a dream I met the Christ.” When I coaxed out some details, she said that her messiah was a handsome Russian-looking young man, and when she asked if he was truly “the God,” he had assured her he was the real thing. When she told her husband about the dream, Tatiana said wryly, “He told me I was crazy.”

Everyone chuckled at this wink of domestic comedy and reality-testing. The sensible, motherly blonde Tatiana was not about to enlist in a holy war. Traditionally, Kazakhs are animists, though in the 1990s Islam was beginning to catch on. Officially, Soviet Russians were atheists, but since the USSR about 2/3 have gone back their Russian Orthodox roots.

In the course of a delicate conversation, Tatiana reported that she was aware that her family were Tatars from Russia.  Granddad had been an exiled Communist official, and that she feared her own family would soon be refugees.

Instead of talking about the “truth” of a religion, we focused the work Tatiana’s dream was doing for her. The Kazakhs’ new law had everyone on edge. Turmoil in Yeltsin’s Moscow made Russia uninviting. Germany was repatriating Germans whose families had migrated to Catherine the Great’s Russia in the 18th century, and many had recently queued at the German embassy to get visas and exit. Although ghastly massacres in the Balkans were yet to come, in 1993 the threat of ethnic cleansing was in the air.  It was impossible to tell if people knew about, or wanted to think about, Stalin’s sickening purges in the 1930s. [1]

One function of Tatiana’s dream was to reassure herself that Russia would welcome her family. Her messiah seemed to be encouraging her to identify with Christian Russia if the cultural crash in Kazakhstan forced her out. One woman reminded us that religions often offer stories of deliverance. The Kazakh teachers were sympathetic, but mostly by denying that the new law—and any of them—might hurt their colleagues.

The current widespread refugee crisis makes Tatiana’s dream especially relevant. She was envisioning a savior who could welcome her family into a Russia where nobody knew them and they had no support network. Terror Management Theory (TMT) can deepen this interpretation because experiments show that anxiety about death stimulates attachment to immortality symbols such as a flag or the cross. [2] For Tatiana, Russia meant social death: a world in which nobody knows you and the social foundation of your identity is lost. [3]

Existential psychology can extend this insight further. Again: the self is not a thing but a sociocultural process. A social ritual asking “How are you?” poses a question but also affirms the reality of the participants. In sleep, by contrast, the waking self becomes unrecognizable or vanishes. As a result, the self is always potentially ephemeral,  and this is a source of conscious or unconscious anxiety. It was in the shiver of fear in the air when one of the Russians” gulped: “I don’t know anyone there [in Russia].”

Insecurity about status in society is partly uneasiness about the permanence of the self. By analogy, the self is always potentially a refugee, and refugees remind us that if you lose your social identity, you can suffer social death. In turn, as TMT predicts, people exposed to “mortality salience” are likely to fear strangers for their association with death.

However much we wish for autonomy, we are social animals. We take form out of the genetic and psychic stuff of other people. But in periods when the scale and pace of life rapidly change, self-esteem comes under pressure, with new anxiety, aggression, and aspirations to manage as a result. Tatiana faced a challenging future, yet it’s possible that she used the workshop and her dream as a way of speaking her mind to her colleagues and relieving her isolation.

Some of the teachers—the potential refugees—came to the airport to see us off. A woman who had shown her interest during the workshop was plainly moved. I couldn’t be sure if the conversation had made her more aware of the way the old USSR had made the school a means of intimidation and social control. But I was touched when she hugged me and said: “This was the first time in all these years of working together that we teachers spoke to each other.” There were tears in her eyes.

  1. Don’t miss Nikita Mikhailkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov’s moving film Burnt by the Sun (1994), which begins like a Chekhov weekend in the country but slowly reveals Stalin’s terror.
  2. See Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015) and the Ernest Becker Foundation:
  3. I take the term “social death” from Orlando Patterson (Slavery and Social Death).

Resources used in this essay:

Zygmunt Bauman, Strangers at the Door (2015)                                                            Kirby Farrell, Post-Traumatic Culture (1998)                                                                Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core (2015)                                                   Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980).



A Blonde’s Year in Review


Took new scarf back to store because it was too tight..


Fired from pharmacy job for failing to print labels……                Helllloooo!!!…….bottles won’t fit in printer !!!


Got really excited…..finished jigsaw puzzle in 6 months….. box said “2-4 years!”


Trapped on escalator for hours ….. power went out!!!


Tried to make Kool-Aid…..wrong instructions….8 cups of
water won’t fit into those little packets!!!


Tried to go water skiing…….couldn’t find a lake with a slope.


Lost breast stroke swimming competition….
the other swimmers cheated, they used their arms!


Got locked out of my car in rain storm….. car swamped because soft-top was open.


The capital of California is “C”…..isn’t it???


Hate M & M’s…..they are so hard to peel.


Baked turkey for 4 1/2 days .. instructions said 1 hour per pound and I weigh 108!!


Couldn’t call 911 . “Duh”…..there’s no “eleven” button on the stupid phone!!!


Understanding Engineers #1

Two engineering students were biking across a university campus when
one said, “Where did you get such a great bike?”

The second engineer replied, “Well, I was walking along yesterday,
minding my own business, when a beautiful woman rode up on this bike,
threw it to the ground, took off all her clothes and said, “Take what
you want.”

The first engineer nodded approvingly and said, “Good choice: The
clothes probably wouldn’t have fit you anyway.”

> >>
Understanding Engineers #2

To the optimist, the glass is half-full. To the pessimist, the glass
is half-empty. To the engineer, the glass is twice as big as it needs
to be.
> >>

Understanding Engineers #3

A priest, a doctor, and an engineer were waiting one morning
for a particularly slow group of golfers. The engineer fumed, “What’s
with those guys? We must have been waiting for fifteen minutes!” The
doctor chimed in, “I don’t know, but I’ve never
seen such inept golf!”

The priest said, “Here comes the greens-keeper.
Let’s have a word with him.” He said, “Hello George, What’s wrong
with that group ahead of us? They’re rather slow, aren’t they?”

The greens-keeper replied, “Oh, yes. That’s a group of blind firemen.
They lost their sight saving our clubhouse from a fire last year, so
we always let them play for free anytime!.”

The group fell silent for a moment. The priest said, “That’s so sad.
I think I will say a special prayer for them tonight.”

The doctor said, “Good idea. I’m going to contact my ophthalmologist
colleague and see if there’s anything she can do for them.”

The engineer said, “Why can’t they play at night?”
> >>

 Understanding Engineers #4
What is the difference between mechanical engineers
and civil engineers? Mechanical engineers build weapons.
Civil engineers build targets.
> >>

Understanding Engineers #5

Three engineering students were gathered together discussing who must
have designed the human body. One said, “It was a mechanical engineer. Just look at all the joints.”

Another said, “No, it was an electrical engineer. The nervous system has many thousands of electrical connections.”

The last one said, “No, actually it had to have been a civil engineer. Who else would run a toxic waste pipeline through a recreational area?”
> >>

Understanding Engineers #6>

Normal people believe that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Engineers believe that if it ain’t broke, it doesn’t have
enough features yet.
> >>

 Understanding Engineers #7>

An engineer was crossing a road one day, when a frog
called out to him and said, “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into
a beautiful princess.”

He bent over, picked up the frog, and put it in his pocket. The frog
spoke up again and said,”If you kiss me, I’ll turn back into a
beautiful princess and stay with you for one week.”

The engineer took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and returned it to the pocket. The frog then cried out, “If you kiss me and turn me  back into a princess, I’ll stay with you for one week and do anything  you want.”

Again, the engineer took the frog out, smiled at it and put it back  into his pocket.

Finally, the frog asked, “What’s the matter? I’ve told you I’m a beautiful princess and that I’ll stay with you for one week and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?”

The engineer said, “Look, I’m an engineer. I don’t have time for a
girlfriend. But a talking frog – now that’s cool.”

 Understanding Engineers #9

Four engineers get in a car. The car won’t start.
The Mechanical Engineer says: “It’s a broken starter”
The Electrical engineer says: “Dead battery”
The Chemical engineer says: “Impurities in the fuel”
The IT engineer says: “Hey guys, I have an idea. How about we all get
out of the car and get back in”

Diversity vs. “Me First”

A friend just sent me this tidbit about Penguin’s new strategy for coping with the pressures on publishers:

You’ll notice that Penguin, which is now the corporate imprint empire of Emperor Penguins, wants to market to every pigeonhole that people might use for an identity. This is partly a reflection of marketing machinery, which slots us into lists and databases.

But one assumption is that Penguin wants to find love by whispering what each customer wants to hear.  The assumption is that reading is all about Me, and selling to Me.  So why expect readers to be  curious about others.

If you don’t have a product for a target audience, or if you oppose the idea of target audiences, you’re a writer in trouble on the Penguin’s ice flow.

Since gratification sells, editors are always trying to peep at, and name, what gratifies people.  You’d think one risk is that such voyeuristic strategies would flatten out personality.  After all, online marketing strategy is always spying on you in order to target you with “appropriate” ads “relevant to you.”  Or relevant to the target you’re supposed to be.

Maybe this is why individuals are willing to be herded into pigeonholes (?) While social media brags about enhancing you, it may be a sign that you feel more threatened by anomie: more in need of a social media mic to amplify your voice. Maybe the theories don’t fit the lives they want to explain.

Think of the Parisian editors who had to read MSS submissions without computer printouts helping them decide who’s loitering in the book stalls wondering what to read.

I just read that Proust had to pay to have Swann’s Way published, and another payment (about $900 = cheap) for a glowing front-page review in (I think it was) Le Monde.

We hear all the time about box office records; they can more important than what’s in the box.  Everybody knows this, yet there’s almost always a gap. To connect, you’d to ask about behavior.  That’s not the slippery shadow the Penguin’s fishing for.




The Tacit Muse

The Tacit Muse expands my blog for Psychology Today, Aswim in DaNile.  After six years I had to quit writing for the magazine because advertising pressure was pressuring the editors to censor content.

My last essay for them weighed in on the #Me too controversy. I suggested that the workplace is more authoritarian these days because business has crushed unions and made it harder for working folks to have a voice.  And without a voice, it’s not easy to say No.

Since the editors’ job was, among other things, to sell ads, and since business generally has been hostile to organized labor, an essay urging a stronger voice for working folks would have presented problems.  In the Internet world, where things can suddenly go viral, the editors I dealt with didn’t risk being quoted. So they refused to answer questions, explain policy, etc.  A totally de-professionalized situation.

In six years if writing for Psychology Today, I had roughly 250,000 reads.  Such figures, I take it, are marginal—trivial—for online business.  So let’s try to create a space for ideas here.