“Are you a Serb or a Croat?”
“You heard me: are you a Serb or a Croat? You have to be for one or the other!”
I had no idea who this young man was. It was the early 1990’s and I had wandered into the backyard of a party I was attending with a friend when this somewhat inebriated young man stepped into my path and demanded I let him know my alignment. I chose one (I don’t remember which, and I’m certain it wouldn’t have mattered) in an attempt to mollify him, but apparently I chose poorly. For that, I received a loud, incomprehensible, drunken lecture on world affairs that I hadn’t really signed up for. I finally escaped when my new teacher spied another obvious recipient of his wisdom trying to sneak past our impromptu classroom.
25 years later, though, I’d like to answer your question. You’ll have to forgive my tardiness, drunken young 90’s man, but I needed some time to think this over.
After careful consideration, my answer is a little bit of “both” and “neither”. But, more importantly, I feel that although you may think my answer incorrect, my belief is that your question is, in itself, incorrect.
You see, as I’ve mulled this over on occasion for the past quarter-century, I’ve had an opportunity to really think about who I am and what labels are important to me.
I come from a family that has lived on the North American continent for over 400 years. Our patronymic namesake came from Germany, but I don’t feel particularly Germanic. In the centuries since our arrival our name has blended with so many other races, faiths and cultures that the German identity has become so dilute as to be unrecognizable. This bothered me for many years as I witnessed others celebrate their heritage, be it Greek or Spanish or Arab. I have no particular ethnic food or dress, and I can’t dance for you the dance of my people, short of biting my lower lip and making a brave attempt to step side-to-side roughly along with a beat and not injure anyone nearby.
I come from a family that is welcoming of other races, faiths and cultures. In my immediate family we have welcomed Russian, Jewish and Hispanic to share our name. My parents were open to all, whether they be Arab or Asian, African or Aleutian.
I come from a family that is welcoming of other faiths. In my immediate family there are Catholics and Lutherans, Presbyterians and Jews, Atheists and Agnostics. The home I was raised in welcomed all of the above, along with Muslim, Hindu, and anything else.
I come from a family of all sorts of political affiliations. Some far to the left, some far to the right, some who couldn’t care less and some, like myself, somewhere in-between.
So, my soused friend, I find that I reject your desire to place an “either/or” condition on my identity. The problem with “either/or” is that it leaves no room for “both” and “neither”. It leaves no room for “a little of this and a little of that”. I reject the notion that I must pick from one of two options. I’m not terribly interested in stepping into a set of “tastes great/less filling”, “Ford/Chevy”, “Apple/Android”, “black/white”, “conservative/liberal” boxes.
The question, or questions, my poor inebriated friend, that I think you should be asking: Do you love? If not, what is standing in the way of that, and how can I help? Do you serve? There are many facing challenges today – what can you and I do to help? Do you dream? Tell me about them, and let’s see if we can give your dreams life.
You see, my young friend, I believe you will find if you put away the fermented beverages fueling your philosophies that if you were to ask a Serb or a Croat those very questions, if you would look past those labels, you would find human beings. And, as you tear away the labels and set aside the need to place everyone in a box, you’ll find that the world is not divided into us versus them.
There is only us.