The forthcoming referendum on EU membership has set me thinking about identity. It’s a problematical subject to talk about, certainly at the national level, without sounding overblown or sentimental or jingoistic. To me, some of the rhetoric about exiting the EU seems flavoured with a nationalism redolent of days when it was generally acceptable to express a certain racial superiority. English identity is of course ever contested in the wake of multi-culturalism; European identity seems complex, heterogeneous and elusive too, rooted in the dusty web of the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon’s megalomania and fading notions of Christendom. So the path out from all this is found by making assertions about the economic doom consequent upon the UK’s staying or leaving.
While I know that money makes the world go around, it strikes me as unfortunate that the great hope at the heart of the European project is so rarely mentioned: the preservation of peace. I find myself thinking of my grandfather, gassed in the trenches during the First World War, moving with my grandmother between bomb-damaged homes in London during the Second; my father’s photographs taken when a member of the occupying forces in Germany of the devastation of the Ruhr, among which my mother lived, while members of her family suffered incarceration and murder in concentration camps. Beyond these dark shadows of Empire and Reich, my parentage has given me a hunger for harmony, as well as a warm attachment to the best of both countries and; though it also occasionally creates a curious sense of displacement, of not quite belonging to either culture.
I think questions of identity lie at the deepest place we can go in coaching. And it’s often a very entangled place. I see it in clients who have found that their identity has come almost solely to be formed by their working lives, having moved from excitement and satisfaction into overwhelm and powerlessness; who have found that their own values are now in conflict with those played out in their organisation; or who have come to the sad realisation that they are ultimately and easily dispensable. Our sense of identity can be a great strength, and give us a place from which to express our “authentic” selves; and it can grip us nightmarishly, like an unshakeable fever.
And yet we learn from those of a spiritual bent that letting go of our delusional, constructed self is the way to reach a fuller understanding of who we are and to form a deeper connection with others. And indeed I wonder if we need to be just one thing, one person; and whether it is healthier and more joyful to be many people, as we discover the diverse things that are important to us and respond to them. I think as a coach we can, at our best, let go of our own selves in the service of others; witnessing our clients relearn who it is they can and want to be, as they shape the legacies they receive and those they want to pass on.