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.

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