Identity Story

The past couple of weeks have been baffling, to say the least. I'm a Greek-American who’s grown up in Germany and who’s lived in Europe a lot longer than in the US. Quite apart from the anxieties we all share about the political and economic uncertainty ahead, the Greek crisis has raised deep questions about my identity.

I’m dismayed by the irresponsible actions of past and present Greek governments, and at the same time I celebrate Greece’s defiant oxi! (no) vote. I’m angry at German and European leaders for their lack of vision, but I also get in my bones why they feel that their Greek counterparts are unreliable.

While Germany and Greece are warring on the European stage, my German and Greek sides are doing battle inside of me as well. The places I come from are being tested, and so are the stories I tell myself about who I am. Dormant aspects of my identity are awakening. Decisions I made long ago about what it means to be Greek are quietly dissolving. I don’t know what it’s all about yet, but I suspect it has something to do with my own inner oxi!, at times a strength and at others a weakness. Like it or not, my narrative is being rescripted, and much like Greece, I don’t know how the story ends.

Much of my recent work has involved helping clients craft professional identity stories. Guiding others through the murky swamps of articulating who they are has helped me appreciate how difficult the task is for any individual, never mind an entire nation or group of nations.

When I work with clients, I take them through a sequence of questions designed to clarify how they see themselves. While they talk, free-associate, reminisce, and tell anecdotes, I begin to tease common threads and themes out of their narrative, and I reflect those back to my clients using a combination of their own words and mine. People are surprised and delighted when they recognize themselves in the powerful stories that emerge from our collaboration. Your true self, revealed through the stories you tell, is paradoxically familiar and new. You need to get used to this person you’re meeting as if for the first time!

Like the Greeks with their defiant oxi!, we all have a need to recognize ourselves in our stories. Our best narratives give us courage and point us to a better future. Others are comforting in their familiarity and in their ability to remind us of who we are. Some of our identity stories, however, are reactive and dangerous. They may fuel us with their emotional energy, but they can also drive us to destructive actions. Which category does Greece's most recent embrace of the oxi! story belong in? It's much too soon to know. One thing is certain, however: we are at a critical moment in the collective scripting of Europe's identity story, and there's no one there to guide us.