The Deadly Earnest Hunt for Identity

Leah Hager Cohen is a talented writer who I first discovered via her reviews in the New York Times Book Review. Her semi-frequent dispatches on her blog, Love as a Found Object, often cause me to pause and think. In her latest post she relays a story from her adolescence to make a point about the hunt for identity and authenticity, a familiar process for anyone "poised between childhood and adulthood." The two best paragraphs below:

What do we know of ourselves then, at the age when we cannot tear ourselves from the mirror, not out of vanity but out of the urgent search to identify, to see, oneself? Up until this time we have been who we are, c'est ça: matter of fact. And someday we will settle again, if less innocently, less righteously, into being squarely ourselves, no more and no less. But there is a time in the middle when we are ciphers to our own minds, when the robust vines of self-consciousness threaten to overwhelm the slighter tendrils of self.

This is when we are prone to spend hour upon hour trying on accents, attitudes, gestures, hats. Colors and moods. Props. We might practice holding wineglasses by the stem; beer bottles by the neck; cigarettes betwixt our fingers; a book in one hand, a hank of our own hair in the other. We try on scowls and sneers, we purse and pout, we analyze our smiles for traces of the beatific. We experiment with unwashed hair, unshaven legs, unmended rips, ungrammatical and ungracious pronouncements. We experiment with posture, with kindness, with the limits of humor and of despair. We do none of it to deceive; rather, we are researching in deadly earnest. We are taking astounded stock of our enormous range. And we are on the lookout all the while for what rings true, for the moments of recognition, for the rare and precious moments we sense home.

Whether or not you enjoy the company of reflective teens and young adults depends a lot on how stimulating you find this stage of life and the broad experimentation that Cohen points out. To retain sanity as a professor, for example, you must find thrill in engaging a constituency (students) doing all the above and more, if you're lucky, as they're also indulging intellectual enthusiasms: Nietzsche! Locke! Burke! Every day is a new hero, which is great except that appreciative hero-worship demands more than staccato attention.

Myself, when not engaged in my own exploring and confused wonderings along these lines, I tend to most enjoy people a few notches beyond this stage (age and stage are not always connected) where the sand beneath your feet is firmer not because you've answered all these questions or resolved all these self-doubts, but because the earnest, anxious, important, falsely urgent, and somewhat trite quest to "find yourself" and "figure out what I'm going to do with my life" has been replaced by a longer range view, one familiar with the real opportunities to reinvent yourself and your career over a lifetime, the surprising benefits of shade over light in some situations (ie, the joys of not knowing certain parts of you, the future, the world, etc), an appreciation for the permanence and fluidity of identity, and, bottom line, the acceptableness of "I don't know" to any number of meaty philosophical or practical questions.

4 Responses to The Deadly Earnest Hunt for Identity

  1. Glenn says:

    Wonderful post, Ben – your last paragraph really captures what I would like to be working towards, once I overcome that stage of trying to “find” myself.

    The excerpt from Cohen’s piece reminded me of a passage from Molly Worthen’s biography of Charles Hill, ‘The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost:’

    “Today’s students are starved for foundations. Many of us start to realize it only when we get to college. The few of us lucky enough to know what we believe have no underlying framework, no good reason for why we believe what we do….

    “Come senior year, college admissions offices were concerned mainly with my SAT scores and the number of speech medals dangling from my bulletin board. They were in no way interested in what I thought about the world. This was a lucky thing for me, because I had no idea what I thought.”

  2. LP says:

    In preteens, teens and young adults, I find this stage interesting and sometimes charming, although it can be challenging after a few hours. In adults over the age of about 30, I find it unbearable. There is some tipping point in the 25-30 range where a person should be able to stop the endless introspection and get it together, start paying more attention to the rest of the universe than to themselves.

    Sometimes I’ll be reading someone’s blog, with the assumption that they’re in the pre-30 age group, and finding their ongoing self-revelations pretty engagin. Then I make the mistake of clicking the About link and learning that they’re 37, and suddenly their credibility takes a big hit, and their posts seem less fascinating and more self-absorbed.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    There’s no question that the stage of life Cohen describes is pretty
    self-absorbed.

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