A dear childhood friend was in town visiting. There has been something of a rift developing between us over the years, a phenomenon common to people living in different continents I guess. However, I was surprised by the strangeness that had emerged between us, as there is a natural propensity to think that you have a lasting intimate insight into someone you have known from an early age. In this case I felt like I was conversing with him for the first time. The surprise is especially marked when the rift seems to have taken on a character other than the superficial differences that emerge due to spending years apart-differences which are easily dismissed after a few glasses of wine and an involved tête-à-tête. No, in this case, a more fundamental and ideological gulf, which had not been apparent when we were miles apart, lay between my friend and me as we sat in front of each other.
I am led to think that this progressive rift must be a result of nature dominating in the nature vs. nurture duel in shaping one's character. I conclude this because of the poignant parallelism of our nurtures, and if one were to believe that nurture is the prevalent factor in determining character, then my friend and I would be very similar people-at least in our fundamental views and values. However, we had clearly become (or perhaps always were) two individuals approaching life from two very different ends of a spectrum.Products of immigrant parents working in the corridors of international diplomacy, private school students, members of an eclectic crowd in the heart of Europe or the world, we emerged into pre-adulthood sharing much of the same experiences. Either fundamental differences occurred once we parted ways in our aspirations of higher education (me to the mean streets of Philadelphia, he to the rainy skies of London), or the grains of difference were already present from the start, part of our genetic code, unique predispositions or other factors which make each individual different. Hence the disparate manner in which we internalized the cultural, spiritual, moral, etc. inputs of our upbringing.
We had become strangers. In fact we argued. He reproached me for being a captive of the implications of my upbringing. Nothing was spared: my orthodox religion, the cultural consequences of being the child of immigrant parents, the unique connotations of being Ethiopian, the familial and social norms that went with it. He described these prescribed values like weights on my being-masking my true identity, tying me down and depriving me of freedom. And I had passively internalized the platitudes of culture in his mind.
"I would rather be dead than be a bourgeois," my friend angrily informed me, quoting some French intellectual, spurred by my (in his eyes) naïve and simplistic illusions. He said that the values that defined me, and serve as my reference points (eg. religion, family, community, love etc), were quintessential bourgeois values-not conscious choices, but inherited ones-and he was indignant at their offensive banality and my passive acceptance. Maybe that was what my family was…products of an era of an Ethiopia where there were only two classes: the bourgeoisie and the other class, and I was raised internalizing values congruent with that life.
At the center of my friend's definition of happiness lay the fluid concept of freedom. Values and traditions inherited from our families, cultures, and communities were like deft thieves in the night, robbing us of freedom and imposing expectations. He defined happiness as the detachment from such prescribed values and notions, and with detachment came liberation. In essence, being an Ethiopian and the associated value system that come with it, were holding me captive and ultimately choking my "true" identity.
Thus, he shunned anything that he felt might deprive him of freedom. Family and religion, especially, he said, are concepts that imprison and burden us with expectations. Concepts which are celebrated in Ethiopia. In his eyes, the love one feels for family is deplorable in its deceptive narcissism and is nothing to celebrate or admire; loving your family simply because you happened to be born to them-a completely random happenstance- was in fact unoriginal and conformist. Religion or any system of spiritual beliefs, he said, were signs of weakness. All these factors, inherent to an abesha family, an abesha upbringing, were conditional restrictions that he viewed with cynical disapproval. Liberation came with recognizing and rejecting this.
Was there a systemic weakness in Ethiopia, in Ethiopians because of the reverence we hold for the Church? God? The value placed on family and community? Were we prisoners of the platitudes of a culture and tradition? Yes, these might lay certain expectations and bind us in some way, but they serve as too.
My friend thought that identity should lie beyond the realm of the cultures we are born to and expected to inherit. In his mind, the parameters which define me should not be defined by the fact that I should happen to be born to Ethiopian, Orthodox parents. Rather, my encounter with the world, experiences and reactions and lessons learned should be the primary and progressive sculptors of my identity…free of preconceptions and expectations.
At some point in our lively discourse, I was struck by the overwhelming irony inherent in my friend's ideas-the very obsessive pursuit of freedom held him captive and he was prisoner of his own convoluted logic. He was an escape artist that had become entangled in his own intricate, craftily constructed ideology-logic designed to outsmart life. He shunned heritage and culture and the associated values because he thought them invidious in their conditioning and the expectations that come with it.
It is true that I might be a different person today had I not been born an Ethiopian. How different, I don't know. Platitudes of culture can make us prisoners if we let them, however, identity, like freedom, is fluid in its definition. I know there are certain expectations that are internalized as a result of the cultures we are born into. And Ethiopian culture is by no means an exception. We are all aware of the many customs and traditions by which our families have defined their value systems and we have inherited a version of those cultures as members of a Diaspora. For instance, I can't help but undergo an automatic adjustment when I am amongst Ethiopians, especially elders, in order not to violate certain customs and traditions. But I am conscious of this adjustment, and I do it out of respect, not out of an imposed obligation.
I wanted to point out to my friend that the value systems we inherit from our culture or family are part of our character or identity, not burdens on them. They serve as the foundation on which character is built. I don't know how we can successfully evade the implications associated with the cultures we are born into without jeopardizing some part of our identity.
Anyway, my friend and I parted ways not having reached a comfortable compromise or middle-ground, the way some people part "agreeing to disagree." Or with the sense that, despite these differences in view points, the weight of history and familiarity would maintain some sort of bond between us. In this case, however, as we were in fundamental disagreement, we parted estranged. In my friend's mind, he existed enlightened to certain truths I could not see because I lived under the dark veil of conditioning. In my mind, he was a captive of his phobias. I don't know if one day we will meet half way. What I do know is that even if we didn't manage to alter each other's views or perceptions, we did leave a small indent in each other's life thesis.