One of the most significant aspects of life is discovering your own identity.
As a child, one learns to imitate the behavior of others, and to obey instructions. In adolescence, one begins exploring what it will be like to become an adult by testing boundaries and seeking out contrasting role models. Some may write it off as teenage rebellion, but it’s actually an extremely intricate dance of self-discovery. At this stage, an individual begins to make their own decisions about whose example they will follow and what way of life they want to live.
As a person emerges into early adulthood, they have generally settled on a way of life that feels authentic. It may be somewhat nebulous, but it has a direction and a sense of gravity. Most importantly, they are learning to take ownership of their life. And yet, even as a person follows in the course of life they themselves have chosen, internal conflicts appear. One discovers that they have beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that do not mesh consistently with the role modes they’ve surrounded themselves with, and must therefore come to terms with an internal struggle for self-integrity. They go through periods of distress brought on by disillusionment, and even deep conflict and disdain for one’s group or heroes. This leads to what some have begun referring to as “the quarter-life crisis.” Young adults trying desperately to weave all the disparate strands of their life experiences, preferences, beliefs, attitudes, and regrets into something that feels both genuine and valuable.
The problem of disillusionment with one’s heroes is elegantly captured in the old adage, “Never meet your heroes.” While no one could ever actually follow this warning, it captures the sentiment of an adult reflecting on what they might wish for their younger self: if you could go back in time and teach yourself one thing, there’s a good chance you might try to avert your younger self from placing too much faith in any particular role model. Our heroes are human, and a human hero will inevitably disappoint us in some way. The only way to mitigate the emotional pain of this disappointment is to withhold faith and affection for them in the first place, and instead to reserve the strength of these emotions to fuel one’s courage to express oneself independently of any hero, role model, or external guide. What was once an open and generous soul may get closed off within a thick shell as a person builds walls to protect themselves from any more disappointment and heartache. When we talk about hitting “the wall” in conversations about spiritual growth, oftentimes that wall is of one’s own making.
Yet, there is a need in life for reassurance that can only be found in human connection. The comfort of common bond is the only balm for the wounds of broken relationships. We begin life looking for a hero whose life will light the way for our own. But every person has their own road to walk, and unfortunately this is a lesson that must be learned through the pain of difference and disillusionment. After a while, the fear of pain can keep us from risking any significant investment of love into others. The fear closes off life, chokes the fire within, and makes a soul cold.
Ernest Hemingway once commented, “As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.” Life only brings more and more experiences of disappointment and disillusionment, and therefore more reasons to give up on having a hero. However, Hemingway, despite his tragic end, Hemingway was a man obsessed with figuring out how to build the soul’s light into a strong and roaring blaze. He recognized that persevering through the challenges of mature adulthood is an impossible feat without the support of someone who can offer empathy, wisdom, and emotional validation. Ironically, the only way to fulfill one’s own identity is in relationship with people who will inevitably distract and disappoint but are themselves the only source of support and nurture.
As a deeply religious person, I have come to believe that the primary teachings to love God and love one’s neighbor grow out of the ability to know and love oneself. To discover your own identity, to open it to the world and let it grow in heat and light and sound like a roaring bonfire, to join your soul’s light with the light of others who are also working and struggling to do the same, and to take delight in dancing in the glory of its light: this is the foundation of true religion.