Who Are We?

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


Peter Schlemiel and Our Identity 


Schahhh / Bleib Still


Peter Schlemiel is the tale of a man who has lost his shadow.  There are many versions of this story.  In one, the man gives up his shadow for a bottomless wallet; in another he dislikes himself and feels like an imitation of a person.  Whatever he says or does is wrong.  This shadow does not know who or what he is, nor who he should be.

In our thoughts we are frequently Peter Schlemiel.  We dislike ourselves no matter who or what we are. We feel  inconsequential; we feel inadequate.  No matter what we have accomplished it is never enough.  If only we had millions and could bribe people to love us. Like the shadow, we feel invisible, indistinguishable from other shadows.  We feel as nobodies, unloved, pushed away by our own families, not needed, not wanted around.  Even our children find us unnecessary baggage. If we had material goods to give them, perhaps they would care and we would become a person once more, wanted and worthwhile. We have become a symbol.  There is an old German Jewish saying: “Fuers  Gewesene gibt der Jud nichts.” The past does  not count. Unfortunately that is how past accomplishments are viewed.  Now more than ever, the younger generation live only in the here and now. As we age, our shadow becomes more apparent.  The person we were and the person we are now are two different entities.  Like the sociologist Cooley’s theory of the looking glass self, we judge ourselves as others see us. We are largely the reflection of other people's view of ourselves. Thus our identity is largely lost.

Identity is very important in our lives.  It can “make us or break us.”  Everyone wants to know who he/she is.  We can see through the eyes of  the adoptee  how serious it is when the person feels bereft of where and who he came from.  What nationality is he? Who were his parents?  What did they look like? Were they bright?  Did they have a profession or occupation?  Why did they abandon him?  Was he not good enough?  Did they not love him?  What were  the illnesses of his parents, what was their blood type, their hair color, their height and weight?  And much more.

The complete shadow is afraid to speak lest he expose himself to criticism.  He may shame himself; he may be the laughing stock of any possible listeners.  He has to keep still.  He is serious about the adage that if he says nothing, no opinions, no exclamations, shows no partiality nor exhibits any feelings, he may be mistaken for a wise man, not as the fool he feels himself to be.

In the original story written by French aristocrat Adelbert Chamisso, Peter Schlemiel loses his shadow.  He sells it to the Devil and is unloved.  He has no past, no happy future, and no identity.

As Jews  and as moral human beings let us not dislike ourselves and frown upon ourselves as our persecutors have done for eons of years.  Let us appreciate our history, our ancestors, our forebears, their wisdom, their struggles, their morality, and  all the sacrifices that they made for us, the future generations.  Let us appreciate our past, be proud of where we came from and who we are today.  Unlike Peter Schlemiel, let us not lose ourselves nor our shadow.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the author of several books and articles.

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