Researching my family tree recently has opened my eyes a great deal to the social history of the 1700s and 1800s in England which affected the lives of my ancestors. Many of my posts have been themed as Imaginative Ancestry as I tried to imagine the lives of tin miners in Cornwall, agricultural workers in Kent, and iron workers in Cumbria. But I have begun to realise that my increased understanding has done something else; it has altered my focus towards …….. myself! The basic question is “who am I” and much more importantly to me “what is my identity” especially as created or influenced by my ancestors?
Identity is a very personal thing, not something to be hijacked by those who label “identity politics” as something right wing or fascist, not something racist that’s based on ethnicity in a predominantly white country, but something that’s based on a self image, a personal construct arising from one’s upbringing, one’s values and beliefs and one’s sense of “being” in time and place.
One thing is very clear to me; I am a Cumbrian, an Englishman, not a European. I may live in a country that is bounded within Europe, but that doesn’t make my Nepalese wife a European either. She is a Newar from Ason in Kathmandu, a Buddhist, even though she has a passport with European Union written on it; this does NOT say who she is!
My mother was born in Cumbria, England, her father was from Cornwall and her mother from Kent. She married a soldier from Durham whose parents were from Devon. I was born in Cumbria too, went to school in Cumbria and worked in Cumbria after leaving school until I was 19 years old.
My parents were ex WW2 military, low in education, low income, high in work ethic, high in community spirit and respect for others and the law of the land. This tells you something of the environment in which I grew up and how my values and beliefs were shaped.
I think this is the heart of it, our values and beliefs deeply ingrained are what “makes” our identity. So my beliefs in “big values” like justice, integrity, fairness, learning, tolerance, hard work and loyalty are hopefully backed up by how I have acted throughout my life as a father, a husband, a friend, a psychologist and as an aid worker.
But there’s something else about identity, a feeling of belonging somewhere, and that brings me back to my Cumbrian roots as I stand in the middle of a field in the Borrowdale Valley. I haven’t been to this exact spot for a few years, probably not since I was finishing my quest to stand on top of all 214 peaks in Cumbria (known and listed as Wainwrights).