6 min read


by Faisal M. Lalani

How do we relate to our sufferings?

Any attempt at answering this eternal question must reckon with the hypocrisy of identity and its fundamental controversy in defining not only who we are at the present moment but who we must appear to be in any given context. This distinction is important, because who we are and who we present to the world are seldom reconciled; the latter is often molded in response to external stimuli, forged from the heat of external pressures to either shun or reinforce the identity while the former is nurtured as a culmination of one’s entire lived experience.

A primal suffering arises when these parts clash - a fragmented sense of self that lives in a borderland, defined by identity activist and author Gloria Anzaldúa as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an emotional boundary.” This borderland, as Anzaldúa describes, is ever-changing, a place where the pieces that make up one’s identity - in her case, as a Chicana, lesbian, writer, and activist - are flowing in “a state of psychic unrest.”

The question, then, becomes how to escape this purgatory, and in doing so, learn how to cope with having entered such a state in the first place. If the incompatibility of the various parts of one’s identity is to blame, then we must examine the context in which the fragmentation occurred and the inciting emotion attached to the process.

Both facets seem to relate primarily to the advent of shame.

It is crucial to emphasize first the relationship between shame and identity. While it is perhaps more obvious that shame is both parent and child of insecurity, what is more compelling is how shame situates itself in the individual. The people we surround ourselves with and the values they may or may not share are instrumental in the precariousness of our identities. Placing an individual in a context in which they are not welcome or accepted provides a direct pathway to shame, thus providing a budding foundation for the seeds of further mental discontent to grow.

The depth of shame is another point of contention: if we assume that shame is a universal human experience, at what point does it become pathological? Is it in proportion to the intensity of its trigger?

Perhaps I dwell too much on technicality. Perhaps we all do. The expressions of our shame spur inquiries about potential neurodivergencies and categories for those neurodivergencies that I wonder if we’re better off asking not what is wrong with us, but why we feel anything is wrong with us in the first place.

For me, this presents itself in an anxiety that sparks before every introduction I make, a doubt that persists after any greeting I give. It makes me hate saying my own name. I’m told it’s natural, that uncommon names always yield hesitation. The other person’s reciprocity winds up in murmurs, because a mispronunciation will only make things awkward. I am henceforth branded within the frequencies of their familiarities, and, with those un-daring, even the dreaded "Hey, you”.

Through these deceitful omissions, a raw and lingering shame is perpetuated. Not shame through the same cracks of precise cruelty you may expect out of the romantic devils of history, but through a more manipulative subjection: a regulation of identity so deeply embedded in our communities that even we find its recognition absurd.

The many years I traveled the world made me aware of this shame, which is not inherent in my own heart, but a real social fear come to light in being constantly reminded that I was unworthy of proper recognition. I left my home because I was not brave enough to survive the wrath of these reminders. I sought connection through dissociation, which only reinforced the isolation I felt from everyone, Americans and Indians and Muslims alike.

I found the truth in empathy elsewhere. Our diaspora may be a diverse one, but the source of our displacement takes root in all our hearts as much as it does in our respective geographies. I quickly learned how easy it was to relate to Southasians, Muslims, or people of color from any country, no matter our unique backgrounds. Our collective shame, implicit or otherwise, spoke louder than our Western-crafted monikers and accents. There was a universality to the dreadful assumptions people made about us, propped up by our shared insistence that these were necessary side effects of assimilation. It is ironic, I think, that I made this discovery by attempting to escape the consequences of that discovery in the first place.

This, I must add, is the true essence of why we travel: not simply for grand adventure but to realize that the intimate sufferings of others parallel our own. The complacency we inherit from our homes has the risk of stifling a sense of exploration into these revelations. We proceed to create illusions that hide these complexities. What you must understand is that the consequences of these illusions are dangerous, because from denial emerges resentment. Not an external resentment, for the success of oppressors is measured by how much we believe in the inevitability of our own suffering. No, this frustration disseminates in the confines of our families, particularly towards the parents we rage at for not embracing the values of a generation as foreign as the land they sacrificed everything to habituate.

This is not a call to forgive inter-generational traumas inflicted upon us. Instead, I urge you to re-evaluate the myths we already know to be false. To do this, we must abandon the pretenses surrounding us and attempt to be honest with the friends we avoid, the mothers we neglect, and the fathers we disregard. This communication should not be condemnation, but a joint effort to explore the complexities of our lives together.

I fear my long-harbored idealism has become antiquated. I’ve attempted - poorly - to express it in bursts with close friends and family, which are usually the extent to which our personal truths are often confined anyway.

My perpetual inhibition has made me wary of establishing any sort of public persona over the years, and the repercussions of that hesitation have induced a mental and emotional indigestion that prevents me sleeping at a reasonable hour. The immediate temptation has always been to either repeat the dogmatic bullet points of a collective political identity, or play the role of moderating chameleon to avoid confrontation.

But I want to abandon pretense for a moment and allow my personal values their day in the sun, free of allegiance to ideology and bereft of impulsive judgement, while reflecting adequately on their cost and contradictions.

The most pulsating of these values is my deeply entrenched resilience to polarization. While this seems like an obvious antagonist for everyone, I speak more to the tendency of people to immediately disregard - usually with heavy contempt - the opinion of those they disagree with, particularly on pervasive social issues.

As someone who largely abides by principles of grassroots community organizing and radical social change strategies, I speak from a perspective of balancing means and ends. I once again emphasize the interconnectedness of our tendencies and temptations in perpetuating our exclusion. I have no desire to create adversaries of anyone. Instead, I rely on empowering you to accept that there exist implicit prejudices that prevent us from being our best selves. They may be born of ignorance (for I truly believe in the genuineness of most people) but their consequence remains the same. And we, despite our own pain at the brunt of these injustices, are complicit if we do not redeem ourselves of their influence. Else the ones who are far more disadvantaged will continue to suffer while we benefit from the more material privileges of our moral entrapment.

How can I hope to fight the injustices inflicting the shame I describe prior if I can’t even fight for my own name? These struggles, despite what the dilution of society may have us believe, are one and the same. Revolutions begin with the actualization of individuality, and that itself starts when you insist on being recognized properly. Otherwise, you forget what that correct pronunciation is, and subsequently, you forget who you are as a whole. I challenge you to demand the impossible with me, because the benefits of such an action can extend beyond us. The scope of impact may as well be six people in the same room, but those six are enough when they are inspired to become unforgivably themselves.

There is no pompousness, no awkwardness, and no offense taken in the attempt to humanize one another. It is neglect that creates distance. Adherence to a misguided purity of established norms only encourages belligerent homogeneity.

To successfully subvert this, we must live, and live irrepressibly. It is in this pursuit of life and love that we realize the tragedy of our fractured souls. When we hold ourselves back from hugging our loved ones, become embarrassed at the rowdiness of our families, or undermine our own names, we must comprehend not the incompatibility of our brown identities in a Western world, but the intolerance of that world in accommodating the beauty of the heterogenous.

And what a terribly dull world it would be if not so.