Activist, Artist, Academic: On Integrating Identities

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I was talking with one of my friends from high school recently and, as we nearly always do, started talking about parks.

We hung out a lot late at night, driving around our suburb till my gas tank got down low (and, being Seattlites of a kind, we lamented the carbon emissions) and then we would stop at a park. Sitting in the car, listening to whatever music was available, we planned our escape mission. We would both go to college on the east coast, have fabulous adventures, save the world; we would become non-profit managers and write books and lead colorful lives in all the stereotypically naive ways that teens with ambition look at the future. We thought "if we just get out of here, then we can do whatever we want."

It was only partly true.

The limitations of living in a community catering to conservatives of the 60+ age range definitely made everywhere else shine a little brighter. Yet those same limitations sheltered us. We were allowed to believe that yes, saving the world was possible and it would be completed in our lifetimes. We'd shiver and fog up the windows, contemplating big existentialist thoughts and remaining oblivious to our own privilege. We'd contemplate the freedom of college life, deluding ourselves into thinking that the transition would be easy. That we'd just slip out of our old skins and into these new fabulous lives without even a hiccup.

I can safely say that I am living a fabulous life of my own nowadays, but it is nothing like the image that my melodramatic teenage self dreamed up. The world has gotten a little bigger and more intricate since I've come to college, not smaller and easier to manage. I'm not saving the world, but I am working to improve it. The expectations that are placed on me keep on piling up even as I develop the tools to work through them. Nothing is as easy as I once took it to be - there's a steep learning curve.

Most importantly, I've begun to learn about integration. My identities, laid out simply in the title of this post, appeared very distinct not that long ago. I would write my novel and work at a non-profit and all my learning would take place at school. I didn't realize how much those worlds overlap, blend, butt heads, challenge one another, and reconcile. When I first got it, I thought I was the smartest person in the world.

It was a little like coming around to eating vegetables. On the plate, individually, they have always seemed unappealing to me. I would eat them in sections, starting from the most bitter to the sweetest. At college, I started to cook. And there it was, the slow enlightenment of putting together my identities like ingredients in one delicious soup. Silly, ultimately commonplace, but fascinating and unique to me.

I tell you these stories not to (or at least not only to) highlight what I view as my transition from youth to adulthood. I am telling you this because ambitious people aren't always good at acknowledging their own needs and readiness levels. When I was sitting in that park with my friend, I wasn't ready to give up dreaming about the big changes we could effect. Now, rather than giving up those dreams, I have found my proper place in them.

Don't get ahead of yourself. Don't let yourself become a monster in trying to be the best activist all the time or the best scientist or the best artist that ever lived. Don't let your dreams go, but find where you best fit into them. Don't let time or location or immediate issues get you down - you are a whole human being and you deserve better than that.

You deserve better than that. And if you are on the track of working towards being your best self, that person who is integrated into their dreams, then you will already be doing more than your fair share of world-saving. Let's all call it quits on trying to be the perfect anything and give in to the complexity that makes our world imperfect. Let's relish it.

Sitting in parks with girls was where I first embarked on cracking this code of the universe. I haven't yet figured it out, but in the meantime, I can recommend synthesis, patience, and acknowledging that every person is a bundle of contradictions and that's ok.

Oh, and of course, eat your vegetables.