Displacement in the Modern Era: Religion, COVID, War, Colonialism, and Immigration

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The following was a college essay written by Catharine Viz. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Catharine Viz, University of Notre Dame

Displacement in the modern era has erupted to become a pressing issue that affects a multitude of facets of the human condition. 

In a wide array of ongoing issues that have emerged in the most recent era, many people find themselves suffering a sort of displacement of identity. As a general definition, I refer to this as a person losing a part of themselves to their new environment or situation, and more often than not they are unable to regain their sense of self and proceed in a normal way. Some allow their morality to be a greater integral portion of this identity, as their religion will either dictate how they proceed, or immorality will plague them with a sense of despair and hopelessness. 

I argue that there is a strong relationship between one’s individual displacement and religion, as religion can end up being a saving grace for those that are displaced, and a lack thereof for those that shun it. In this project a great number of situations emerge reflecting individuals reliance on or rejection of religion in their personal displacement of their identity. While some figures, like the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the Civil War and in Lebanon are able to cope with their displacement through religion, as it allows them a sense of firm reliance in their identity, others like Kurtz from Heart of Darkness find themselves lost due to the lack of morality. Not always apparent at a first glance, religion and displacement of identity weave an integrated narrative that has lasting effects on all, regardless of the situation or affiliation. 

Current Covid-19 Crisis

Unfortunately, the theme of Displacement hits very close to home, as the entire world is suffering the global Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic

This situation is instantly identifiable for the entire world, which is an interesting moment of unity for a world that seems to constantly be torn apart by differences. 

Personally, as a college student, I have suffered this version of displacement, and its effects on a massive scale Much like the overall themes explored throughout this project, I have struggled with my feelings of identity, morality, and sense of wholeness as ongoing effects of displacement from my version of the ordinary. Like many students throughout the world, I was forced to pack up my academic life, relocate to a familiar yet in many ways foreign location, and make adequate with my newfound situation. This overwhelming experience has been unlike any other that I have ever encountered as a college student. I had assumed that I would finish my four years of undergraduate education in an academic environment, surrounded by friends. Yet, I am faced instead with vast and undefinable unknowns. As someone about to graduate, my future lies uncertain. With no formal graduation, no sense of being granted the accolades of accomplishment, all hopeful optimism for the future is made dull. Additionally, my class of graduates is expected to enter the professional world as swiftly and unceremoniously as when we were sent home due to the pandemic, in the first place. All former relationships and new relationships are forever tainted by the necessity of virtuality. The human experience, often so tactile and physical, is now limited to the essence of cameras, laptops, screens, and streaming services. For a young person that is supposed to be filled with hope and joy for their upcoming years to come, Covid-19 definitely puts a damper on the blissful “normalcy” that everyone once had the privilege to experience. I personally have been shaped by my spirituality to find a sense of dignity, integrity, and purpose, as I find myself praying for the condition of the world constantly. Even more heroic actions by spiritual heads include a priest in Italy, dying of Covid-19, offering up his ventilator for a younger sick patient. In this modern crisis of displacement, some are spurned to action through their deepened spirituality despite their own dilemma of displacement of identity. While I mourn my senior college experience, and my identity as a student and graduate, I embrace my spirituality to strengthen my own perspective of the pandemic and my future. 

As a time of reflection, this pandemic raises many questions for a great multitude of people. Many are questioning elements of their identity that they never perceived as a problem before including on the basis of faith. The struggles that people endure during this time show how physical displacement and semi isolation can effect relationships and mentalities of identity. The multitudes are suffering a sense of loss whether it being a graduation, job, birth, or death. How is this loss repaired, how do we proceed from here? Does being bound to a strict moral code, guided by an inner moral compass, with belief in fate and God’s will allow one to cope and preserve their identity, even in crisis? I aim to discover the answers to these questions in the works I have chosen on displacement.

“What Gets Lost” 

To begin my deep dive into the idea of Displacement, it is crucial to first examine the many “pieces” that are fundamental to the “wholeness” of a person, and in the absence of even one of those pieces, a person is subject to fragmentality- an inability to ever truly become whole again. 

Thi Bui, “What Gets Lost.” 

This lack of wholeness due to Displacement is best captured in the work by Thi Bui called “What Gets Lost.” Perfectly captured in this artwork is all the pieces that make up the self, and consequently those parts that are separated, shattered, and possibly never truly reconstituted within their original form for a displaced person. 

This image by Thi Bui, in the book The Displaced, was the pivotal image that I considered when approaching this thesis. The commonality of all that submitted selections for The Displaced, were that they were all immigrants, which to some extent ended up being a crucial part of their identity. I chose this image specifically because it was a poignant image that shows the “splintering” and “shattering” of one’s identity when they are displaced from any number of familiar elements of familiarity. The idea of “wholeness” and certain elements of a displaced person’s identity slipping through the cracks is greatly important to understanding this image. For example, while the piece Cultural Savvy/ Local Know-How of the displaced woman might not be the most important element of her experience, it in no means that it is less important to her experience and identity than any of the other parts. Additionally, a point to note is a common theme that many others of this book mentioned: a displaced person’s new country may aim to snuff out the most fundamental parts that a displaced person is aiming to recover. For many that are displaced to America, to become a citizen, one feels intense pressure to “Americanize,” in an attempt to acclimate to a nation that feels a moral necessity to help refugees and a wide array of displaced people, yet under conditional circumstances. 

There is no mistake that the illustrator drew the displaced person to be a young female Muslim. In the wake of a post 9/11 era, people are quick to judge, jumping to their own conclusions of a person’s experience. This is increasingly applicable to the displaced people that are not like us: the people of different skin tones, religious affiliations, from nations that are war torn with constant fighting, and killing. I find an interesting correlation between morality of people that claim relation to a religious affiliation, but hesitate to want to directly help displaced people. This is why I greatly appreciate the image of the nuns from the Lebanon village. They are there, completely displaced themselves, outside their comfort zones, yet they acknowledge that they can only offer what they can- themselves with a passion to serve.

Some pieces of their entity quite literally get lost, and they are left with the dilemma of somehow trying to substitute these old ideals they hold dear, with new ones. This piece highlights the fragments that represent the different elements of one’s identity. For a displaced person to be taken from their original environment, the question arises as to how much of one’s original identity is built up of and made reliant on this environment, as well as the lasting implications of one being thrust into a new environment. Interrelated to this is the question of how does one put the parts of themselves back together? These questions did not escape me, as they became focal points to greater arguments of the elements in which I chose to focus on. Physical displacement therefore leads to a greater displacement of identity. Some people are able to adapt, reconfiguring themselves to a new land, people, and situation. However, others for various reasons, simply cannot adapt, possibly due to their wounds (emotional/ physical/ mental) and the experience of displacement simply being too great.

Individuality and Religious Identity

Moving forward from the initial deep dive into Displacement, and looking further into the different pieces that constitute one’s identity, including how Displacement effects them, I am proceeding in my analysis by honing into two of these ideas: Individuality and Religious Identity. My curiosity was peaked by finding similarities in the vast amount of information provided to us. My first idea was that I sought to discover the causes and effects of “displacement of identity,” when a person, due to their circumstances, finds themselves at a crisis of their existence, being something that they could have never predicted. Also, a secondary idea I considered was the overwhelming effect that spirituality may or may not play in the existence of displacement. While for some religiosity is measured in a life dedicated to an order (the Holy Cross Sisters), others see their importance of creed and commitment to be towards a nation or ideal (soldiers in WWI and Kurtz in Heart of Darkness). 

Individuality 

The first aspect of a person’s essence that is fundamental to all people is their identity of who they are. Far too often within Displacement, for various reasons, people begin to lose this sacred understanding of who, what, and why they are the person that they have become. Focusing on displacement of identity within an individual becomes an onerous task, because when someone cannot ground themselves in the essence of their being, how can they adapt to a new place or situation adequately? 

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,

Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park

Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,

Voices of play and pleasure after day,

Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

                            *        *        *        *        *

About this time Town used to swing so gay

When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, 

And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—

In the old times, before he threw away his knees.

Now he will never feel again how slim

Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,

All of them touch him like some queer disease.

                            *        *        *        *        *

There was an artist silly for his face,

For it was younger than his youth, last year.

Now, he is old; his back will never brace;

He’s lost his colour very far from here,

Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,

And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race 

And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

                            *        *        *        *        *

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,

After the matches carried shoulder-high.

It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,

He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.

Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,

Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,

He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;

Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,

And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears

Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts

For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;

And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;

Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.

And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

                            *        *        *        *        *

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

Only a solemn man who brought him fruits

Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

                            *        *        *        *        *

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,

And do what things the rules consider wise,

And take whatever pity they may dole.

Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes

Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.

How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come

And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Connection to Individuality

Reflecting on the poem “Disabled” by Wilfrid Owen, a huge element for many of the men that fought in World War I was the idea of “the call.” While soldiers are technically volunteers, when joining a military force you put your own needs aside for the betterment of the greater unit. You learn to take orders and in a way lose your own autonomy. This is intriguing when raising questions on displacement of personal identity, since one’s identity in a military is no longer their own. 

For soldiers returning from World War I, many suffered a huge displacement of identity when they returned home missing limbs or were disfigured in some way. Their experiences in war were displaced when they arrived to fight for the glory of their home country, only to realize that modern warfare was impersonal, cold, calculated and never really produced winners or losers. For many of the disabled men returning home, they were met with uneasiness of the people at home. Seeing them as ruins of their former selves, they became displaced people in a place that was full of familiar streets, shops, people, sounds, and smells, but now with their displaced identity would never be the same again. The carnage and immorality of war caused many men to feel displaced in their own bodies, just like how they felt like strangers in their homes (if they had homes left due to bombings during World War I). The general public cannot relate to the trauma of this form of displacement, so those that face this are forced to feel like outsiders. A dangerous side effect that comes from this otherness, especially for the soldiers in World War I, was depression and even impending suicide. 

A character in another work read for class, Mrs. Dalloway and the character of Septimus embodies this otherness perfectly. Septimus returns from fighting in WWI with severe PTSD and trauma, partially due to losing his commanding officer, Evans, to which he shared a deep friendship with. While author Virginia Woolf leaves the extent of their relationship relatively ambiguous, with some inferring that Septimus and Evans may have shared a deep admiration for each other, a part of Septimus dies at the loss of his comrade. His ability to connect to other at an emotional level is shut off, leaving him isolated, though not in the physical sense of the term. This isolation due to his experience deepens his depression and eventual suicide. While no longer physically displaced upon returning home, the reader cannot help but to wonder if Septimus ever truly did return home mentally. Septimus is a true example of how displacement can cause the sense of loss in one’s identity, that is possibly never regained. However, it is plausible to think that in the loss of Evans, Septimus lost a part of his identity, leaving his relationship with his wife, Rezia, invalid and unfulfilling since she could never be Evans. 

Religious Identity

A subsequent additional avenue in which to perceive understanding of Displacement in the works examined in class, is that of Religious Identity. Multiple accounts of nuns in positions of displacement, in the Civil War as well as in the conflicts in Lebanon, highlight the dichotomy of women that chose a life of a vocation and obeying orders, but ultimately experienced a very different life than they ever could have expected. Yet, in this call to religiosity, they are grounded in principles of goodness. In an effort to resemble Christ in their daily lives, they served others, while often being unable to process their own experiences until years later. 

Holy Cross Sisters in the American Civil War 

“Answers to Mother Augusta’s Questionnaires: 1894”

This selection from the archives was a powerful testament to a young woman that devoted her life to seemingly certainty. Yet, she finds her life and career goals completely turned on its head, and her identity is changed for the rest of her life due to her displacement as a Civil War nurse. Usually trained as teachers and educators, the Holy Cross Sisters, like Mother Augusta, author of the first segment, could have never prepared themselves for what they were called to do- become nurses for soldiers in the Civil War of America. The example of these nuns and displacement is an extremely select example of multiple levels of displacement. Not only were many of these nuns already displaced from their home countries, namely Ireland and France, to South Bend, but then they were again displaced to their service as nurses (in Cairo, Illinois). 

Yet, their solution to responding to their displacement is not fear, anger, or hopelessness. Rather, they are grounded in faith, and choose to rely on the idea of God’s providence as their guide for their lives regardless of how many times they may change. This is their constant in the turbulent lives that they live in multi-faceted displacement. They choose to do a great deal of moral good, despite being in direct correlation with men from both sides of the Civil War that aimed to kill and destroy one another (there is the point to acknowledge that people in their era would actually argue against this, that nuns were being nurses to men that were naked, a displacement of the norms of the time).

The nuns have the interesting situation of somewhat forced displacement, which is an interesting concept that they have committed to vows of being obedient to their superiors who ultimately control their lives (as in where they go, what they will do, how they will serve). It is up to the nuns to do the very best that they possibly can with the place they have been displaced to, with their new displaced identity of who they are. While they are still nuns, they still have drastically different circumstances. 

However, this being said, very few examples of displaced peoples allow those people to actually “choose” their displacement and most have no control of the matter. So when many refugees, for example, may become displaced due to circumstances out of their control, they are technically not being told to leave a bad situation. Yet, in being human beings that desire a basic necessity of safety, dignity, and peace, many choose an identity of displacement in an effort to secure a better life than their original situation.

Holy Cross Sisters in Lebanon 

Sister Madeline Therese CSC in front of Shepard’s Hotel that became a National Hospital 

In connection to the letter by the Civil War nurse, I see a direct correlation to those nuns and these nuns pictured. Despite the obvious danger of the situation that they are in, they are aiming to make the best out of a displaced situation, and will aim to bring their positivity to those that are deeply suffering due to their situations that led them to this displaced point of their lives. Again these nuns do not have control over their displacement, and their identity of nuns will not change wherever they may be. While they may suffer minimal discomfort and pleasures, their suffering of displacement is impossible to compare to the people that have been displaced due to conflict and war. 

Additionally, the account of Sister Madeline Therese C.S.C. further highlights the service of nuns in Lebanon. I found it interesting that she acknowledges many other displaced peoples, but does not consider or refer to herself as one. She mentions in her account a group called the Druze that were not Christian or Muslim, but rather a an ethno-religious minority group that suffered greatly in the Civil War there, not only like the Christians and Muslims did, but by their identity slowly being buried due to their status as a minority group. I appreciated that despite the vast differences of the people that the Sisters encountered, they lived to serve all they came in contact with. (onto next column…)

The Historic Perspective and Account of Sister Madeline in Lebanon 

Highlighting the great degree of disruption that the people of Lebanon are suffering to the disadvantage of their livelihood was especially heart breaking. With this context of her historical account, it better puts into perspective the photo of her in front of the bombed out building, which was once a hotel, but then became a hospital for those that needed it. 

In further examining the account of Sister Madeline it is evident that the sisters in Lebanon also suffered greatly. Further letters speak on behalf of the nuns conditions, living in apartments hunkered down, bombs dropping all around them, suffering the same elements of the displaced peoples. Though it is true they did not experience the exact same displacement, the Sisters of the Holy Cross, in order to continue their ministry, found it necessary to travel from place to place. In being bombed out of all these locations, they eventually had to flee, becoming refugees of a sort themselves, being evacuated to Cyprus. 

Sister Madeline in the picture shows great joy despite being displaced in a war torn country. Her along with the other Sisters were driven in devotion to their religion and service, which should merit the respect of others who cannot claim the same.

I appreciate that despite having the similarity of being nuns and embracing their religious identity in their displacement the various differences that occur in this form of letter writing. While Mother Augusta, who comes from a privileged background, freely offers this information it is telling to note that Sister Anthony’s account is much sparser and “quieter” than Mother Augusta’s. Furthermore, Sister Madeline’s written account is taken to be a historical perspective of someone that lived the experience of being a displaced person in Lebanon, suffering a great deal of turmoil. While some nuns use storytelling as a creative element of their religiosity and displacement experience, others cannot cope in the same fashion. While Mother Angela’s account highlights her ability to story tell, with a rehearsed response that defends her time as a nun and as a nurse, Sister Anthony possibly cannot return to that place emotionally. While she is not attempting to return physically to the location of her displacement, the turmoil of her emotional state is just as challenging. She does not feel the need to talk about it, and does not feel a need to be a part of the narrative. All the nuns, through their writings, one way or another, have to come to terms with their new sense of identity as nuns. 

Overall, for these nuns and their religiosity, it is deeply admirable to note what impels and propels these young women to have done what they did. They engaged in a mission, not just “talking the talk” but rather actually “walking the walk,” in serving others and denying themselves. These women took large leaps of faith, involving themselves in a great deal of risk for their personal safety, as well as their emotional well being. But, with risks come the scars of displacement.

Conclusions

With both of these elements of displacement in mind, greater overlapping conclusions are able to emerge. 

The role of soldiers and nuns surprisingly share multiple similarities in the ideas of mission, identity, and serving a greater role for bigger causes than themselves. 

First, it is important to note how displacement impacts the nuns and their attempts in re-integration versus the soldiers during World War I. While both have lives that are voluntary and mission oriented at first, the disintegration of the life they expected to have, like the nuns being told to drop everything and leave to become something completely different at the flip of a switch or soldiers coming home and being expected to reconfigure themselves in their old lives and situations, stretches the identity of a person to almost the breaking point. It is meant to be an adjustment process, but when it is not handled as something that is broken down, more often than not, what does it do to you is cause a great disturbance in your understanding of yourself and who you are- a displacement of identity. 

Furthermore, both sets of individuals feel “the call” to service, that has indefinite boundaries. Soldiers and nuns are both volunteers to an extent, but under both groups, there is a necessity to take and follow orders. Arguably for both groups, the moment that you join and become fully indoctrinated, you are losing a part of yourself that you can never truly regain within your identity, because you cannot control what happens in your life of service. Personally, it is equally awe-inspiring and horrifying to sign on for a life that you might have general ideas as to how you end up, but may, in the end, emerge with a totally fractured identity. In a sense, for both the soldiers of WWI and nuns of both the Civil War and Lebanon, displacement becomes a part of who you are, a part of your identity. In pledging your life to a cause, then being bound to vows of obedience (religious or otherwise), answering and obeying what is asked or ordered of you, integrates displacement as an element of your existence. You put yourself at risk by embodying a willingness to displace yourself in the servitude of others. This risk is always accompanied by the scars of displacement. 

It is additionally interesting to consider the relation between individuality, autonomy, and being a part of a collective unit that are overarching themes for both the soldiers of WWI as well as the Holy Cross Sisters. On one side, the displaced embrace their individuality in their displacement, as a way to cope and accept, like Mother Angela and Sister Madeline, who speak candidly and personally about their experiences. Yet, on the other hand, others like the general soldier in Owen’s poem or Sister Augusta, seemingly fade into the background of commonality, being one of many that had experienced what they experienced, but unable to acknowledge the specificity of the occurrence.  

On the theme of commonality, I again return to the character of Septimus in Mrs.Dalloway. His experience of becoming ill with PTSD is far too common for so many that returned from the front lines of the trenches in WWI. Many felt lost, alone, and isolated because they no longer shared the experience of the horrors of war with the people they returned home to. Furthermore, Septimus in his own way fights against the commonality of those that have become filled with a general sense of dread in the wake of the ending of WWI. Septimus states that “There is a God,” which isolates him further within a society that has taken to heart the words of Nietzsche: “God is dead.” Many further Septimus’ insanity of his struggle to his apparent spirituality, assuming him mad and only adding to the chasm of separation that exists between Septimus and the world around him. 

The “Darkness” of Imperialism

After wrestling with heroic examples of embracing Displacement as an element of personal willingness to volunteer your life in service to others, it was necessary to confront a completely opposite example of religious identity and displacement of identity, such as what is found in the character of Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness. 

I picked the Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad greatly due to its ties to the themes of empire and imperialism. “The sun never sets on the British empire” was a frightening phrase of harsh reality that was consequence to the English’s expansion into countries across the world as well as staking a claim to all of their resources. Europeans voluntarily were able to displace themselves as parasites of the rest of the world, invading other countries and furthermore displacing a great number of the indigenous people too. These people of the countries that came under British occupation, much like the Congo, are displaced from their lives in a variety of ways ranging from being forced to work under heinous conditions, to being thrust into a position of moral and civil inferiority. Namely, these “semi-civilized” people inhabitants that do not wear Western clothing or subscribe to Western religions are displaced as “others.” Yet, if they were to conform to the ways of European life, would they stand to become as immoral and corrupt as the Europeans that displaced them in the first place. 

My thoughts instantly turn to Kurtz, who in his experience in the Congo is transformed by his unchecked power by the natives he comes in contact with. His own displacement rubs off onto the native people that he experiences there, since he causes a great disruption of their lives as they have known it until he arrived. Relating to my thesis, his immortality is a huge reflection of his displacement identity, reflecting how he harms and takes advantage of those in the Congo, blinded by his quest for ivory. Kurtz is made evil and highly immoral in his displacement, rising himself to the power of a faulty god. Numerous unanswered questions arise in his character, such as who makes Kurtz evil, does he choose to be evil, and is immorality a product of his displacement? Or a more daunting proposition of his character is to beg the question: was Kurtz immoral to begin with and that immorality embedded in him, only to be hidden under the trappings of  Western “civilization?” Once Western society has fled him, and he is apart from moral code and conduct, this is his displacement, in which the mask has been ripped off. This can be directly contrasted to Mother Augusta who directly relates her displacement as still being a fulfillment of her vocation in a moral and spiritual way. An interesting point to bring up is that Marlow is going to retrieve Kurtz, and has a certain impression of a man that has risen to great power, wealth, and influence. Yet, upon his arrival, his version of reality is warped when he encounters the truth that Kurtz is indeed sick, dying, withered, and defeated. Marlow notes how Kurtz’s displacement has come full circle; regardless of how powerful he might have once been, the unbridled selfishness, greed, and hunger for control over those he has imposed his tyrannical will always catches up to him in the end. “The Horror!” of his terrible actions are that the displacement of others changes a person, often for the worse, and of course raises the question of eternity, especially with the idea of existentialism in the modern age. 

In the displacement of identity of Kurtz can be directly correlated to both the soldiers of WWI and Septimus, who suffer psychological trauma. Therefore the displacement has lasting effects on the mental, physical, emotional, and psychological wholeness of a human being. This trauma is only a side effect of the vast moral ambiguity that Kurtz embodies as an imperialist in the Congo. This has to do in part with what allows the involvement of a group in a different region of the world. 

While one side of involvement and interference in another region for completely immoral purposes is akin to Kurtz and his work of imperialism, a direct contrast of this is the work and experience of the nuns, who arrive in distant locations with an aim to be grounded in moral purpose. This again is a direct opposite of Kurtz from Heart of Darkness who chooses immorality in his displacement, and harm on others in his location for which he is displaced. Where as the nuns are choosing to do a moral good for those they encounter, again comparable to the situation with Kurtz who greedily robs the people of their livelihood and displaces their identity as human beings. 

Kurtz is being greatly impacted by this displacement, being destroyed by all that it entails, however he is also the one doing the destruction due to his lack of a moral compass, active rejection of Western codes of conduct, and morality. This emptiness of spiritual grounding is attempted to be filled via gaining and growing in power within the Congo. I note a great overlap for Septimus as a soldier returning from WWI, that experienced such an intense lack of morality on the battlefield, in a worldwide quest for power amongst nations. He simply was a pawn of the larger structures, like Kurtz, of government and glory, only to emerge from the conflict severely damaged. For Kurtz, it is too much to return to the West and the strict societal ideals on morality for what is “right” and “wrong.” Similarly, Septimus finds himself unable to comprehend with a life that is within the normal parameters of goodness, unaffected by war. He too cannot bear to live within this displaced environment, committing suicide as a result.

Real Life Connection: Basia O’Neill

“It’s not important that you are Polish or American…it’s more important that you’re God’s. Cling closer to God and find your identity in Him.”- Basia O’Neill 

(On her graduation day from Nursing school, surrounded by her husband and seven children)

Barbara “Basia” O’Neill 

Upon interviewing someone in their experience of displacement and the intersectionality of faith and identity, I approached my boyfriend’s mother, Basia, for her thoughts on the matter. Basia O’Neill, formerly Barbara Taraszka, is from Tarnów, Poland. In 1991, at 18 years old, she came to America, leaving behind Communist oppression to pursue a career as a nurse. When asked to speak on the ideas of displacement of her identity along with her Catholic faith, she shared the following: 

“The Polish Catholic Church, here is different. No one can exactly prepare you [for what the changes will be]. When arriving in America, things were better than in Poland, like the comforts of life.”

A large element of Basia’s life is her firm reliance in her Catholic faith. She shared her thoughts on how America differs from Poland to that effect: 

“In terms of Catholic identity, you have to put in effort here more so than in Poland. Americans are relaxed in Catholic education. [Even in Poland, where the] school and state are separate, Catholicism was a way of life. Like Sundays, those were days truly of rest. That’s all you did, it was a quiet day; you were ready for visitors, unlike here. In a way it feels like a big loss and a big change, that was my identity, a big change. The year in Poland marked and divided, revolving around Catholic holidays [despite the Communist government influence.] There were huge processions, you could not hide from your faith, your life revolved around it. Now, here in America, there is not a single procession…it’s sad.” 

This strong reliance in her faith allowed her to remain steadfast in her dreams of service to others through a career in Nursing. Despite initial struggles, Basia states that God’s timing allowed things to happen within the correct timing, allowing her to have seven children and then complete Nursing school and work in hospitals as well as hospice. 

“Getting a Visa, was miracle, because it was unheard of for an 18 year old to obtain one so easily. God opened the doors for me to come. Medicine was not a huge decision. Ever since I was little, as the youngest of family, I knew that I wanted to be a nurse. I was constantly reminded of this goal through friends that I admired that are nurses, women that are spiritual.”

“Yet, for a while I let go of dream of being a nurse, but I was busy with the blessings in front of me [marrying her husband and having seven children, placing her schooling on a back burner.] But with the recession, I went back to college, doors opened, certain courses fit perfectly in timing, because it was God’s timing, It worked out, like it was meant to be. If I had forced it, I would not have had the family I have, placing a lot of stress on everybody.” 

In conclusion of the interview, asking Basia on her current state, looking back on almost three decades of being in America, she commented on the tremendous amount of displacement upon returning to her native Poland:

“I feel a sort of “in-between.” Bringing my kids back, its the same but not the same. I am Polish but I am American.”

Overall, I throughly enjoyed the incredible story of Basia and her experience as an immigrant and a woman of faith. She truly displays how even people of deeply affirmed faith can suffer the displacement of their identity in a new land, especially when that identity is a person’s faith. Despite her displacement to America, she found great solace in the Catholic Church of America, as she had even mentioned that her faith had been able to grow and prosper upon her husband, John, completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. While she has made peace with living in duality as both Polish and American, she remains steadfast in her belief that despite being somewhere other than Poland, she will always be an nurse, wife, mother, sister, daughter, and Catholic. 

Closing Thoughts 

Throughout this project I have learned so very much about Displacement, including the intersectionality of the identity of displaced people and how religiosity affects this. While figures like soldiers in WWI and Holy Cross Sisters across the worlds being involved in different conflicts committed their identity to be a those in service responding to a call, this did not always give them a happy answer. Examples of such fall in Sister Anthony and Septimus, that struggle with their identity of who they are in hindsight of who they were. While the previous people were bound to a greater morality, this can be placed into direct comparison to the figure of Kurtz who allowed immorality to become his identity in his displacement, which ended up destroying him. While displacement will never go away, I think that it is an enlightening topic to discuss especially for the ever existing crisis of identity and people’s faith in trying times. 

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