“Argentines have an immigrant complex.”
That’s what the Argentine Spanish discussion leader told me last Friday. We were discussing why Buenos Aires is the city with the most psychiatrists per capita in the world. I had offered up a simplistic theory about how Porteños work long hours and don’t sleep very much.
And then with that statement she dropped deeper than I had expected. I knew what she was getting at. I’d seen it in surveys every day. Buenos Aires consists less of indigenous South Americans and more of second, third, and fourth generation European immigrants, mostly Italian and Spanish.
“Argentines –myself included–have an immigrant complex.” She said, “We carry around a sadness, a melancholy mixed with pride, trying to reconcile our identities. We don’t know who we are. Many travel back to Europe in search of family and heritage.”
And suddenly it makes sense, the sadness in the tango and the clinging to the silly superstitions and the pride in their language and nationalities. Argentines crave identity.
And so do I. Everybody does, really. And we start the search early, carving our names on tree trunks and school desks and bathroom stalls. When you were 8 and you couldn’t resist dragging your initials through that wet cement, that was you claiming your identity.
It starts with your name, and then it grows and you accumulate details like nick-knacks on a shrine. Your upbringing, your education, your job, your life experiences, accomplishments and relationships. We arrange them like a mixed-media sculpture to form our own opinion of ourselves, our identity. All these little snow-flake details that we put under microscopes and memorize and tweak and re-memorize until we are satisfied.
I’ve heard a joke that Argentines are the Texans of Latin America. In the same way Texans take pride in their Texan-ness, often with bumper stickers and t-shirts and Texas-shaped waffle-makers, Argentines love their country. And the similarities between Texas and Argentina are worth noting–there exists a duality (perhaps even a clash) of cultures and histories in each. Also both are known for having a lot of cowboys. And steak.
While many of them may crave their personal identity, Argentines claim their national identity with a special sort of pride, maybe a compensatory pride. On the whole, they care deeply for the state of their country and the prosperity of their people. For what some may lack in individual identity, they make up for in collective identity, I suppose. And judging by the psychiatrist statistic, I’m not sure it’s necessarily a perfect substitute.
And I can’t help but wonder if all my searching and self-actualization is any holier because I’m a Christian. Do all the details of my individual-identity shrine come together for the purpose of contributing to my heaven-identity, my collective body-of-Christ identity? Or is my faith just another nick-knack on a shrine dedicated to myself?
As Christians, most of us are pretty good at claiming our collective identities as members of the body of Christ. We are comforted by the sense of belonging, the community that comes with being a member of his kingdom.
But when Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah and Jacob became Israel, God changed the very essence of their individual identities. It’s not enough to belong to the collective. Am I willing to let God knock the base out from under my carefully constructed shrine of accomplishments and traits? Am I willing to accept all the time I spent carving my old name on stuff as wasted time? Am I willing to embrace my new name and let him rebuild a shrine in honor of something greater?
Sooner or later the self-selected nick-knacks topple anyway. Even faith, when made a nick-knack, is unstable sinking sand.