Do Shared Identities or Shared Values Matter More?

What is it about shared identities that people often find themselves obsessing over, identities that are often meaningless if they are not connected by an underlying set of shared values?  Much of it may have historical roots, but, as deep as those roots may stretch, they will get ripped out over the slightest of lines of difference.  So, what is the interplay between this and the facts and arguments that often-run counter to placing shared values above shared identities as the thing that connects people most?

Historical and cultural complexities add to the debate between shared identities and shared values, shaping peoples’ identities over time.  Despite how people may identify and explore the multitude of layers to their identity, identities are rather fluid, while shared values tend to be more arbitrary.  Yet shared values can still be contorted in ways that do not represent the standard that most people would aspire toward.  Nor does our globalized world offer the privilege of common experiences, as the non-globalized world once did, and, without common spaces, those lived experience never become shared experiences.

Hypocrisy may be the biggest hurdle for shared values to overcome, while the complexity of shared identities also drives unity and solidarity in ways that far surpasses the power of values or beliefs.  But the collapse of societies around the world and the rise of various wars have also demonstrated that shared identities stand on stilts—that there are no foundational building blocks to keep them standing upright.

But these “parchment promises” of life being sacred and that all people are created equal burn well, keeping people warm from the bitter cold realities of collapsed societies and warzones, alongside the documents that those whom we share identities with will throw away when they are most inconvenient.  One tiny hyphen provided more than enough reason for some non-hyphenated health professionals to decide that the hyphen was all that mattered, and it almost cost one little toddler their life, some many years ago.

A hyphenated toddler was refused access to life-saving medication by non-hyphenated health professionals.

Perhaps the earliest obstacles that I have ever had to overcome date to the first three years of my life.  I was born into a civil war and during a period of famine.  The first two years were spent in the arms of my parents in Sarajevo, where dodging bullets, ducking bombs, and avoiding landmines was what mattered most, and not that there was little food and no electricity or running water.

The third year was spent in Belgrade, escaping to a less trouble space and where people worshipped like us.  It was also where my family’s shared identity as ethnic Serbs was disregarded.  We were “hyphenated” Serbs (Bosnian-Serbs) and we were looked down upon for having fled the warzone.  It was also where my story almost came to an end, after I was stung by wasps and went into anaphylactic shock, and after the paramedics refused to treat me.

After getting stung and having an allergic reaction, my parents took me to a nearby stationary ambulance to get an EpiPen shot.  To their shock, the paramedics refused to treat me.  My eyes had swollen shut and I had hives all over my skin, but none of that mattered because the paramedics stated that their EpiPens were for emergencies only.  The paramedics also told my parents that if they wanted me to receive an EpiPen shot then they would need to buy it from the pharmacy store because I was not going to be provided with one.  It may have been the fastest my father has ever had to run, from the stationary ambulance to the pharmacy store and back.

My parents had just enough money set aside that they were able to buy the EpiPen, and I got better after receiving that shot.  Soon after this near-death experience, my family’s life would change after they ended up winning the lottery, after our application to emigrate to Canada was approved.  Despite that the first three years after birth happen to be ones of rapid growth and brain development, I believe these early-life uncertainties were psyche-shaping moments that shaped my little self into a vibrant and resilient child.  But it is a gift to be able to go through these ‘experiences’ as a baby because they get built over during early childhood years.  But adults are not so lucky.

The war experiences as seen through the eyes of fellows.

During the civil war in Bosnia, my parents, my grandparents, and I were living in the heart of Sarajevo.  While many families lost loved ones to the cruelties of war, we were one of the lucky families who spent the more than a year in the city while it was under siege and still survived.  Despite being ethnic minorities, we had support from the unlikeliest of places and we survived the war, and then managed to make our way to Canada.  But there were many close calls.

One of my family members had been assigned the responsibility of having to deliver rations to different homes, and would often work in a group of two.  One day they were told that their partner was unavailable and that they would do the route by themselves.  They knew the route and most of the community, so it was nothing to worry about.  Except it was where they almost took their final steps on this earth, by the Sarajevo train tracks which were across short-story buildings.

Someone from one of those short-story buildings opened their window or got on their balcony and yelled something, with their words being followed by the sound of gun fire.  My family member jumped into the waist high grass, watching how blades of grass were being mowed by bullets from the automatic gun – right in front of them.  Laying down for what seemed like eternity, before getting their wits about them, they got up and ran back home.  They survived certain death.

On another occasion that should have resulted in certain death, which had taken the lives of many others, was them being assigned roof repair duties.  After digging ditches on the frontlines, ditches which were constantly in the exchange of gunfire, repairing rooves after they had been destroyed by mortars was the second most deadly job anyone could get assigned to do.  Sarajevo is a city that is at the bottom of a valley, surrounded by mountainy hills.  So, it creates the perfect conditions for those wanting to fire mortars or snipe at people.  By some miracle, the snipers managed to recognize my family member through binoculars as an ethnic Serb who had been a site supervisor during the construction of the Olympics in Sarajevo, so the Bosnian-Serb Defence Forces did not shoot at him.  But repairing those roofs while hearing gunfire and knowing that the snipers had hit other targets is hard to imagine.

Even when it looked like luck was about to run out for them and when they had been taken to a makeshift concentration camp within Sarajevo.  A family friend, an ethnic Croat who happened to be a senior member of the Bosnian-Croatian Defences Force, went to that makeshift camp on his own and brought my family member back that very same day.  Having to only spend a “few” hours at one of those makeshift camps was a gift, if compared to some of the experiences some of our family friends were forced to endure.

Sometimes real-life is less believable than any film.

As bad as the situations my family had to endure may have been, many of my ethnic Serbian, Croatian, and Bosniak friends’ families experienced far worse.  Trying to understand how some of their family members managed to survive those situations is impossible.  Situations such as being taken off a bus that was designated to transport civilians out of the warzone and supposed to be protected under the Geneva Convention, but then being lined up and told to face the dirt and knowing they were moments away from being executed, only for a commander to say, “we need to save these bullets for the others later” and being put back on the bus.

Now, imagine a family whose son (Bosniak) and son-in-law (Croat), who were around the same age, were taken to a makeshift concentration camp.  Neither of them had an idea that they were both being held there.  Each of them thought the other was long dead, only waiting for their own death sentence to be passed down and waiting for the executioner to show up.  How they found out about each other while being locked away in their cells was by whistling a song that was a shared favourite before the war.

Each day when they would get taken into the “interrogation” room, on their way back from those interrogations they would whistle that same song to signal they were alive.  If they heard a whistle back, then they knew the other was still alive.  Whistling was the only way they could communicate, because if someone found out that they knew each other they would have been instantly killed.  How they got out that dreadful place and back home is nothing short of unbelievable.

Another one of their family members (Serb) had managed to procure three sets of forged documents, including one for himself.  What complicated the situation was that all three of them were ethnically different: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosniak.  The situation required him to go behind enemy lines and convince many people at different checkpoints before arriving to the place they were being held.  Then convincing those there to let them go, and then driving back, and hoping that the documents and cover story would hold up long enough for them to return to their families.  There were a few close calls that could have seen all three killed, but, by some luck, they managed to escape the area and make it back to their families. All three survived the war.

Not that long ago we were visited by close family friends who had their family visit them from Western Europe, survivors of the incidents mentioned above.  Being around them was special, in the same way as talking over dinner with a Holocaust survivor here in Ottawa or spending the weekend at an UN-sponsored event in New York befriending a Yazidi-American and learning how her family escaped the terror of ISIS.

Yesterday’s price is not today’s price and today’s price will fall short of tomorrow’s price.

Life is invaluable.  Yesterday’s price is not going to be today’s price and today’s price will fall short of tomorrow’s price, because that is the price when lives are cut short.  A lot about surviving the war experience in Bosnia was influenced by the identity that people shared, but surviving certain death situations was only possible thanks to shared values that patched over any lines of difference.

Maybe shared identities are a necessary starting point, and realizing their limitations is what it takes to understand the power of shared values.  By thinking.  By understanding.  By feeling.  Or, how one eulogizer once put it, everyone shares in the short moment of life and how all people seek the chance to live their lives in the common goals of purpose and happiness.