Identity Changes When You See More Clearly

James Baldwin can open America’s eyes.

Posted Feb 16, 2020

Accomplishment is in my blood. I have lists of things to do, steps to take, am task-oriented at meetings, and generally feel good to put another line on my vita. But is that a good life?

When your whole identity has centered around grades and achievement, resumé construction and climbing some ladder of success, it is hard to feel that something else might be better. But it happens. I know academics who got fed up and left the publication-churning lifestyle. One became a baker.  Another became an environmental activist.

“You can’t take it with you” is often said in regards to taking material wealth with you when you die, usually said with the goal of pointing out that on your deathbed you will think about your relationships rather than your bookshelves or closets. It is better to focus on relationships.

It’s true about some accomplishments, too.  When I die I won’t be taking with me the books and papers I’ve written. Of course, you might say that I won’t be taking along my relationships either. But that is untrue. My relationships are me—they shape me like a jello mold. The relational care of mothers and others shape our neurobiology that we carry forward into all our relationships (e.g., attachment style) in visible and invisible ways, often invisible to ourselves (Bazerman & Tenbrunsel, 2011; Narvaez, 2014).

Later on, relationships promote triggers in me that are indicators of where I need to grow, where my self is pinched or underdeveloped. If I pay attention, they raise my awareness of the many ways I could grow.

In psychology, judgment is not always followed by corresponding behavior. This is called the judgment-action gap (Lapsley & Narvaez, 2004). It is lamented in moral psychology after decades focused on methods for improving people’s reasoning.  Researchers found that people with sophisticated reasoning did not always follow through. Taking action is a much more complicated endeavor than just thinking and judging best actions (usually in hypothetical dilemmas in a laboratory setting). The replication crisis in psychology has something to do with the setting effect (among many other things) (Rest, 1983).

Life is complicated outside the laboratory. In the flow of events, you have to notice the important features (perception) and interpret them (sensitivity). You have to be motivated to take action—does it fit with your identity? Then you have to know how to carry out the action and persevere to completion. Many moral/ethical actions can fail at one point or another in the process (Narvaez & Rest, 1995).

Perception and interpretive capacities are the first phases of moral behavior. But our perceptions can be clouded by our culture and experience.

On a personal level, we have perceptions of ourselves that do not match up with our actions. But when we pay attention, we can see that we display a judgment-action gap. For example, we may aim to be a compassionate person but when we pay close attention we can see that in some situations we behave in a manner that is short-tempered and insensitive. This is where the neurobiological structures, like the stress response, can have power over our explicit goals — our self-regulation falters (Narvaez, 2014).

On a social level, too, there are perception-action gaps. When James Baldwin left the U.S. to live in other countries, he was criticized for giving up on America’s promise to him.

In her memoir, Notes on A Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, writer Suzy Hansen describes her desire to sever her small-town American identity with a move to New York City but once in NYC, as a member of the media elite, she finds herself feeling disconnected from the rest of the country. On a whim, she applies for a fellowship to live abroad for two years and wins. She selects Turkey as her destination because her favorite author, African-American James Baldwin, lived there, saying he felt more comfortable and safe living abroad as a black, gay man than living in the USA where black lives were threatened on a daily basis from institutions and practices that simultaneously devalued and exploited blackness. James Baldwin, one of the greatest writers about the African American experience, lived much of his adult life outside of the United States.

Baldwin had written things that puzzled and intrigued her and that she had to explore for herself. Regarding Americans acting out their despair, he wrote:

“This is the way people react to the loss of empire, for the loss of an empire also implies a radical revision of the individual identity.” (Nobody Knows My Name, 1961, p. 12)

As Hansen conversed with Turks and others, her self-understanding shifted. She finds herself understanding the British actor Russell Brand who remarked after the death of Margaret Thatcher that she, like a headmistress, had inculcated in her students (the British people) that “there is no such thing as society” and that they should “ignore the suffering of others.” This neoliberal view was upended by the financial crisis (and now, climate disruption) but the societal-level crisis led Brand to question himself, his own identity (p. 23). Hansen writes of her experience abroad affecting her identity:

“I was learning about American’s role in the world; I was also slowly understanding my own psychology and temperament and prejudices — the very things that had made it so impossible to acquire worldly knowledge in the first place. American exceptionalism did not only define the United States as a special nation among lesser nations, it demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were born superior to others, a concept of goodness that requires the existence of evil for its own sustenance.” (pp. 22-23)

In Hansen’s experience, when she asked about what a country (e.g., Turkey, Iraq) was like in prior decades, the response was similarly “How is it that you know nothing about us when you had so much to do with what became of our lives?” (p. 25)

For many people in the world, America defined their lives. For example, for a middle-class Turkish woman: “it was an American world, with American-made international laws, American wars on her border, American military bases on her country’s soil, American movies in her movie theaters, American songs on the radio, American monetary exchange rates, American economic policies, American-style marriage proposals, and four whole pages devoted to American news in the Turkish newspapers.” (p. 83)

Hansen realizes that, because of American hegemony, “foreigners grew up without the very thing that Americans cherished so much about their American selves — their self-made story.” (p. 83)

Americans unconsciously settled into “softer versions of oppression, the kinds that fit easily into the American vision of its place in the world: as guardian and enforcer” (p. 38).

“Anti-Americanism is not some bitter mental disorder inflamed by conspiracy theories and misplaced furies and envy. It is a broken heart, a defensive crouch, a hundred-year-old relationship, bewilderment that an enormous force controls your life but does not know or love you” (p. 24).

Suzy Hansen’s memoir is about her awakening of identity, bringing to consciousness her role in the world, realizing that what characterized her conscious and unconscious assumptions is the white American identity. Her prior lack of consciousness about America’s role in the world she calls dangerous “because it exonerated me of responsibility, of history, of a role — it allowed me to believe I was innocent, or that white American what not an identity like Muslim or Turk.” (p. 90)

She cites philosopher, Jonathan Lear, who wrote:

“Unjust societies tend to cloud the minds of those who live within them. Such societies hold themselves together not by force alone but by powerful imaginative structures that instill fear and complacency in the population. Those who, at least on the surface, profit from injustice tend to be brought up in ways that encourage insensitivity to the suffering on which their advantaged life depends. If we are inhabitants of an unjust social order, it is likely that our own possibilities for thought will be tainted by the injustice we are trying to understand” (Jonathan Lear, Waiting with Coetzee, 2015, Raritan: A Quarterly Review, 34,4, 1-26).

The fever for accomplishment in the world has driven American action. Yet it seems to have an judgment-action gap. Hansen realized that in order to perceive clearly another country, she would have to take apart the myths she had learned about America and uncover the nature of its empire. We discuss in the next post what she learned in light of James Baldwin’s insights.

Related post:

Learning from Living Years Abroad


Baldwin, J. (1961). Nobody knows my name. New York: Random House.

Bazerman, M.H., & Tenbrunsel, A.E. (2011). Blindspots: Why we fail to do what's right and what to do about it. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University press.

Hansen, S. (2017). Notes on a foreign country: An American abroad in a post-American world. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Lapsley, D.K., & Narvaez, D. (Eds.) (2004). Moral development, self and identity: Essays in honor of Augusto Blasi. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. & Rest, J. (1995). The four components of acting morally.  In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Moral behavior and moral development: An introduction (pp. 385-400). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Rest, J. (1983).  Morality. In P.H. Mussen (Series Ed.) & J. Flavell & E. Markman (Vol. Eds) Handbook of Child Psychology: Vol. 3, Cognitive Development, 4th ed. (pp. 556‑629). New York, Wiley.

Lear, J. (2015). Waiting with Coetzee. Raritan: A Quarterly Review, 34(,4 1-26.