Ask The Psychologist Issue #24: Identity And Memorial Day

In psychology, identity is the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity) or group (cultural identity).

I recently met a retired school teacher, who thought American History and World History. She stated that when teaching, she took her students on many field trips to foreign countries. Part of the trip involved a visit to an American Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, if one existed in the country. She stated that she did this to instill a sense of identity in her students, so they could learn first hand what it is to be an American. She stated that since she has retired from teaching many years ago, she has seen the courses she previously thought become part of history and regrets students today, not having the opportunity to learn about World History and American History as they once did years ago.

I shared with her a story of my own, when I first learned the true meaning of what it was to be an American. Growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the prevalent ancestry of the residents were Italian, Irish, and Polish, I always observed people, when asked what they were, respond with their ancestors nationality. I did the same until 1990, when visiting Italy. My wife and I went on the trip with a couple, with the husband being born in Italy. When in his 20’s, he moved to the US and became a very successful businessman. He held citizenships in both Italy and America.

While in Rome, we had the occasion to have dinner with a friend of our traveling companion, who informed us that he was in the Italian Army during World War II and was assigned to be one of Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini’s guards (an Italian politician and journalist who founded and led the National Fascist Party prior and during WW II). While having dinner at the home of this former Italian soldier, I was told by him and my traveling companion how Italy was superior to the United States in many areas including wine, food, politics, history, etc, etc. This debate went on for the first two nights at dinner.

On the third night, when the debate started again, I immediately told them both that they were correct that Italy was superior to America. They were both shocked that I stated this so matter of factually. They asked me why I had a sudden change of heart. I told them that I realized this fact, when I discovered earlier in the day, when I took a trip down the coast, that there are thousands of American’s living not far from Rome. I said, “ Why wouldn’t Italy be better than America, since so many Americans are living there — but there was only one problem, they are living six feet underground in a place called Anzio and if they weren’t there , Italy would not be the country it is today!”. That put a sudden end to any further debate and thought me very powerfully that I was an American of Italian ancestry  From that point in my life, I no longer referred to my nationality as anything other than an AMERICAN of Italian ancestry.

Standing that day in the middle of an American Cemetery, in a foreign country, instilled very powerfully, what it meant to be an American. This message I spread, every time I get a chance, even when I was the president of an Italian Club. I recall telling the club members that America was a united country longer than Italy, since Italy was a collection of city states until 1861, when Italy was declared a united nation-state under the Sardinian king Victor Immanuel II. Therefore we must first value our American identity and appreciate what our ancestors gave us to contribute to our identity.

When talking to the former history teacher, we both agreed that every American should be required to stand in the middle of an American Cemetery, in a foreign country, to learn in a most powerful way, their identity as an American. Just a thought on this Memorial Day.

Bart P. Billings,Ph.D.
COL SCNG-SC, Military Medical Directorate (Ret.)
Licensed Clinical Psychologist CA PSY 7656
Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist CA LMFT 4888

—Director/Founder International Military & Civilian Combat Stress Conference
—Initial Enlisted Ranks and Retired as Medical Service Corps Officer with a total of 34 years in US Army
—Recipient of the 2014 Human Rights Award from Citizens Commission on Human Rights International & The University Of Scranton “Frank O’Hara Award” in 2016. (“Invisible Scars” & “Unhealthy Eating …” Books Website) (Combat Stress Conference website)
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