Before you carry on reading this column, please, do the following: stand in front of a mirror, preferably a full-length one and ask yourself this question: what am I? Not, who are you? You know who you are, but what you are will pose a different challenge. Then, come back to this space and post a short, one- or two-line response below.
At some point in the last ten to twelve years I posed a similar question to myself. Before that time, however, I never queried what I was. Or at least, not consciously. If ever the question arose, it came from someone, rather than from me.
I would wager (and I am not the betting type) that your answers included categories such as age, race, complexion, body shape and height. Some might have ventured a bit further and included their sexual orientation and politics.
How many of you started your response with the phrase: I am a human being?
There is no catch in this post. Like you for a long time I described myself as Cuban, male, black, young (still and forever), able-bodied, neither tall, nor short, slim and muscular, straight, left-wing (but not romantic), cynical and pragmatic. Two lines that established what I was. No priority in that list. Yet, at some point the pragmatic has taken over the Cuban. Other times the Cuban has replaced the black as a bigger identity marker.
However, hidden under all these thick layers there was one trait that I shared with every other man or woman on Planet Earth: our human experience. What is it about us humans that compels us to “dress up” this essential feature with countless other elements?
Our starting point in life, barring location and economic status, is similar. We cry most of the time as soon as we’re born; we immediately gravitate towards our mother’s breast, seeking nourishment. We react warmly to affection. We begin the long, arduous process of living, knowing that our individual choices must not hurt others, that we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the world at large.
The challenge is that at some point in our lives and at a very early stage for some, we also start to layer up our identity. The markers we choose might or might not be of our own volition but the decision to act on them is ours.
The reason why I have been thinking about identity markers and our common humanity is the situation of refugees in Europe. The dangers these people face is threefold. First, their situation back home. Second, the journey many have to undertake to reach what they would consider a safe sanctuary. Third, but by no means least, the new life they have to carve out in a land to which they never thought of emigrating in the first place.
The thinking on refugees is usually framed in terms of economic cost: how much is it to feed them, clothe them, house them and employ them? The discussion very rarely delves deeper into the reasons why people with reasonable life standards would risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or war zones to get to Europe. If we did, we would probably find an index finger pointing back at us. On the one hand, our military industry demands that more wars be waged. Otherwise, how on earth would we manage to sell our weapons? On the other hand, our economic choices have a knock-on effect on Third World countries and their capacity for self-reliance.
I described myself as a cynic a few paragraphs before. Nevertheless, I have confidence in the world we live. I am also a romantic (not of the “plastic socialist” type, though) and believe that the majority of human interactions involve millions of acts of kindness and co-operation. Part of the reason why I hold these beliefs (note the use of what is commonly seen as religious language. I am reclaiming it) is that many years ago I, too, stood in front of a full-length mirror and asked myself what I was. The first answer I came up with still resonates to this day: human.