On identity and compassion: how embracing diversity (in me) has made all the difference.
I decided to write about diversity (as many of its shades as I can address in the future) and my own encounters with it, because it’s been increasingly difficult for me to observe the lack of compassion in dealing with what is different, foreign or out of ordinary in our society. I also decided to write this to point out a beautiful attribute of Central Europe, the region I‘m from — to describe my love for it and to invite its people and others to embrace their own diversity.
Growing up, I was no different from many bilingually raised kids. My parents literally nagged the heck out of me to learn languages. They especially made sure I master my two native ones, Slovak and Hungarian. I spoke Slovak with Mom and Hungarian with Dad. I went to Slovak kindergarten one year and Hungarian the next. I was read to, a lot, both Slovak and Hungarian stories. My wider family spoke both (never in the same sentence), we watched both Slovak and Hungarian TV, spent vacations in both countries, ate food, told jokes, learned history, admired artists, consumed the pop culture of both nations. By the time I was 5, I knew Slovak, Hungarian and English songs and poems by heart and spoke all three quite well. I realise some kids are fluent in more languages, earlier, but this was early nineties in Czechoslovakia and Communism has just ended. We lived in a small, bilingual town near the Hungarian border. Our freedom was months old and besides my language skills, my parents had other challenges to attend to. Despite their limited circumstances, they paid for private English and German language tutors, took me on trips abroad and introduced me to foreign cultures as often as they could. We spent tearful weekends practicing grammar together and I dreaded telling them when I skipped class. I will never be able to thank them enough for all the nagging and cultural exposure, the most precious gift I‘ve been given.
In my hometown life was sweet. As kids we experienced Slovak, Hungarian and Roma communities living side by side without major conflicts, speaking each others’ language, learning about each others’ culture, you know, surviving the wild, post-communist nineties in as much peace and solidarity as it gets. On school trips, we sometimes came across minor Slovak-Hungarian issues, on playgrounds our white neighbours sometimes fought with our Roma neighbours. Our parents and teachers explained the conflicts as remains of the historical past and fallbacks of the political present. There obviously was racism, it just didn’t reach our bubble, because the gatekeepers knew their thing. It never effected our daily life. It was never anything we allowed to enter our communities. For us, life was truly diverse, colourful, fun.
I left home for boarding school and got to experience the Slovak capital on my own at age 14, but when it came to diversity, it didn’t turn out to be much different from where I grew up. The only difference was that I became aware of it. During my first years at high school, there was a period when I was a bit too Hungarian to be Slovak and later, when visiting my hometown, a bit too Slovak to be Hungarian. At first I struggled with a desire to belong, to be understood and possibly, less laughed at for my occasional language mistakes. But with time and just enough inclusive support, I came to accept the fact that the duality of my upbringing has forever marked my identity. Living in Bratislava and travelling alone for the first time, I realized how truly diverse my country was. I learned about all the nations that used to live side by side in Bratislava, the multicultural past of my ancestors, the Slavic, Hungarian, Jewish, German, Austrian and Turkish heritage that shaped the immensely diverse Central European region. I also noticed during those years that almost everyone I knew had a multi-cultural background. And it was around that time, that the diversity in me has started to create several identities for me.
From then on I picked up many. I deliberately designed my life to not stay in one place. My work was international and required frequent business trips and my studies went by almost constantly travelling. I lived on the road while being based in 4 countries and 2 continents for 6 years before returning to Slovakia. I went to the most international school I possibly could, dated a Chinese-American for 3 years, and made friends literally around the globe. A similar scenario repeated itself when I returned, “a bit too global to be local“, but it found me better prepared this time. My background has helped me to come to peace with the fact that I do not fit into one easily defined category. I embraced my several identities of being a daughter, friend, international student, employee, entrepreneur, Hungarian Slovak, woman in business, psychologist, workplace consultant, wellbeing advocate, traveler, what not. Several at a time.
To achieve compassion and understanding we have to start with ourselves, with self-compassion. We all have them, these multiple identities, and we are living in times when appreciating and cultivating diversity within us, not only around us, is crucial for solving some of our most pressing problems. Self-compassion means fully embracing our own, personal diversity, to be able to appreciate it in society. Just like any other area of personal and societal development, it’s a process.
The people of Central Europe carry traces of an extraordinarily rich culture within themselves. That diversity has shaped us and made this region known for it’s talent, humanity, achievements and inventions. It’s a paradox and a missed opportunity that this region is politically and socially neglecting refugees, distancing itself from minorities and abandoning the marginalized. Ignorance is an evolved form of violence and it‘s painful to observe how inhospitable and polarized our society has become. It’s a shame that we’re consciously refusing to leverage on one of our greatest gifts, our common catalyst.
Slovakia is forever my home country. Central Europe is where my roots are however global life I live. I have hope that our region will soon come to see that killing it‘s diversity disempowers people. Nourishing diversity on the other hand, helps us find commonalities instead of differences and synchronize for progress. It is diversity that allows us to discover new paths, new identities. It is compassion among us towards this diversity, and self-compassion within us, individually, that makes us realize how much strength and depth there is to rely on in ourselves, in this region. Inside and outside, for each and everyone.