The “Snap out of it” story is usually my father’s response when asked to describe his son. As the story goes, when I was three my mother was pushing me in a stroller when she passed by two elderly women. One woman says to the other, “That boy’s a shrimp!” while the other replies “He’ll snap of it.”
I suppose there is truth in my father’s logic. Nothing has ever come easy to me. While some of my schoolmates could effortlessly carry a tune, hit a baseball, or draw the human body, I demonstrated no natural ability. Still, somewhere deep in my core being I was able to persevere. Struggle, labor, and perseverance have always defined who I am.
It was in graduate school that I was able to define my condition. While researching for my master’s thesis I discovered the theories of psychologist Erik Erikson. Erikson theorized that people struggle through a succession of eight crises throughout their lifetime. While I found meaning in many of Erikson’s theories, the identity crisis resonated with me the most. According to Erikson, in adolescence we experience an identity crisis where we begin to reflect on our function in society and our self-perception to the outside world. However, Erikson adds that the identity crisis is an ongoing process, that a “well-developed structure is flexible.”
Perhaps, because of my struggles, I have learned to be “flexible.” As my identity has shifted, so I have learned to adapt. I always considered myself a native Northwesterner, but attended college in Massachusetts. When I lived a year abroad in China, I was identified as a foreigner. Returning stateside, I taught high school, but I dreamed of attending graduate school. While in graduate school, I had to relearn my role as a student.
Erikson’s identity crisis also explains what drew me toward education: I could empathize with my students’ struggles as teenagers as I reflected on my own struggles as an adult. While I despised every moment of high school as student, I always sensed high school was the age group that I was most suited to teach. On a daily basis, I observe my students’ identity crisis through their fashion sense, their musical tastes, their romances and breakups, their frustrations, their obstinate will, their passion, their recklessness, and their undying enthusiasm for life.
My wife and I now struggle through another identity crisis as thirtysomethings. We feel the pressures of adulthood weighing us down. We are young, but not in our youth anymore. We are old, but far from elderly.
I believe that existence is a series of identity crises. We must peel off our old selves to become who we are, so we can then unravel who we will become. I may never “snap out of it,” as the elderly woman suggested, nor would I want to; struggling through an identity crisis enables me to maintain my flexibility.
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