We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.
The human heart is born with an unquenchable inquisitiveness. We walk this earth, curious and confused, in a constant search for answers that exist nowhere but within ourselves. Great minds have tried endlessly to fathom the mysteries of the world, but in spite of all the philosophical endeavors of our enterprising species, we still remain doomed to unsatisfying lives of misinterpreted hints and vaguely conveyed solutions.
The problem is that the answer is different for all of us and to we must find it for ourselves if we want it to be right. It is not a common path, but rather a lonely quest that all individuals must undertake in their own unique way. Among the greatest questions that haunt us, none is more detrimental than the question of “Who am I?” and among the greatest answers of our being, none is more pivotal than the experience of “I Am.” Life is lived relentlessly in pursuit of an absolute validation of personal worth. We keep looking for a sense of purpose in this unforgiving world, day after day, year after year.
But at certain critical stages in life, we step back from our realities and examine ourselves as essentially as we can, and question everything we have believed so far about our personal worlds. We reluctantly come to recognize our delusions. Our existence suddenly appears to be hollow and misdirected. Nothing makes sense according to our original perceptions and we are compelled to nurture a new mind for the sake of a more authentic comprehension. We take off our rose-tinted glasses, rub our tired eyes with clenched fists and look at the world for the first time completely as ourselves. This period of irrepressible curiosity and wonder inspires uncertainty and intense internal conflict within us and we get insecure about our very existence, becoming helpless victims of the classic identity crisis that plagues all of the humanity at some point.
Erik Erikson, a German-born American psychologist, proposed a psychoanalytic theory of development, consisting of eight stages of life from infancy to adulthood. During each stage, a person is said to experience a different psycho-social crisis, and the way in which he deals with it is considered to directly impact the growth of his personality, steering it either in a positive or a negative direction. The fifth stage in this theory has the conflict of identity vs. role confusion, and it is believed to occur during adolescence, from the age of 12 to 18 years. Erikson said, “The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psycho-social stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult.”
If we were to agree with what this theory claims, it would explain why the identity crisis manifests itself so loudly during the teen years- It’s because this is the age of extraordinary change, where we retain our childlike idealism and secret beliefs in magic but take our first hesitant steps into the harsh world of adulthood and brutal realism. The social expectations from us change suddenly and drastically, and as we find ourselves in the process of switching roles, we get lost in the crevices of our overwhelmed minds.
Who am I, now that I am not who I used to be?
I cannot give a universal answer to this question because that is not how self-discovery works. All I can do is explain how I personally resolved my crisis and hope that it contributes to everyone else finding his or her own solutions as well. During my impressionable years, I tried to come to terms with my feelings of helplessness, insecurity and broken identity by directing all of my energy towards building a strong knowledge base about ideas. I turned to the Existentialists, authors like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and fell into stupors of inconclusive deep thought on a daily basis. I became alienated from my past and scrambled furiously to grasp at my inherent self as I saw my childhood fade away to a stranger existence.
It is always good to remind oneself of the memorable quip by Joan Didion that “we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” — advice often difficult to implement as we cringe at the bitterness, stupidity, and pretence of our former selves; and yet advice that stays extremely relevant in the everlasting pursuit of healthy self-acceptance.
According to me, the best way to understand the ‘self’ is by acknowledging and staying with the contradictions. If you persist, you begin to see that there is always more than the two opposing truths and the third part, which is reconciliation, can successfully glue your personality together. It is also rather important to ask yourself what is your opinion about the influences acting upon you- like the universal laws of nature, the teachings of religion, the concept of faith, the deceptions of sleep and dreaming, the very idea of man’s place in the living, breathing, sentient cosmos, the demand for morality, the nature of animal instinct and intuition within and around you, the meaning of pain and pleasure, the idea of conscience and consciousness, the genuine and fabricated needs and desires of the body, the intimate force of sex, the inevitability of death, the illusions of time and the world in its entirety resting on your eyes to be seen naked and complete.
Only when we learn to be true to our experiences and methodically break down the elements of our rationality to their roots, can we truly embrace our true worth in the universal scheme of things. I believe that finding yourself is a ruthless expedition that demands great mental fortitude and very clear thinking. It is a challenge to our species that makes us human and drives us towards bigger truths.
Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “Become who you are.” And, given time, I intend to.
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