You are what you are

Sometimes psychology is scary. I like to think of myself as living outside of a predictable system of action and thought, but every once in a while I am reminded that this is not the case, that my experiences and anguishes and concerns are not really personal. On the bright side, it feels nice to be a part of a universal consciousness and to know that the content of my mind is shared to some degree by everyone who ever was or will be. But when I was perusing Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, I was disheartened to see how accurately he summed up the inner life of a college student. “Age: 20-24,” the chart reads, “Psycho Social Crisis: Intimacy vs. Isolation.”

Whether you like it or not, you are suffering through this question. You probably spend a lot of time thinking about attachment and detachment and who is actually worthwhile. You sometimes go out because you feel like you should. You also stay in sometimes because you feel like you should. And you are almost certainly trying to reconcile the intimacy of home with your new identity as a scholar/party-animal/athlete/rebel/addict/artist.

If this struggle has a winner, it is the new you. Home will always be important. The coziness of family is vital, but any attempt to define yourself by the family from which you came is in vain, because it is an attempt to define an adult in a child’s role. There is a reason that age 18 is almost universally important around the world. Over the past couple thousand years, each generation has begun puberty just a little bit younger than the generation before. This shift has been especially prevalent since the early 20th century, and after so many generations with increasingly adequate medical care and nutrition, there has been quite a substantial change. So much so that, in the ancient world, it was around age 18 (about five years later than today) that boys were considered pubescent, and at that point they could go on their own and start a family. Although physically we grow up faster, sociologically we grow up much slower, relying on our parents longer and waiting until we are much older to start new families. I see this as a perfectly reasonable reaction to the increase in life expectancy. It makes sense for us to prolong our youth as much as possible.

But I also firmly believe departure from the home is crucial if we want to be serious about freedom of thought. Isolation is just as important for our mental faculties as collaboration is. If we want to call ourselves scholars, it means leaving our parental thought paradigm and beginning a new conversation—the social counterpart to this is departing from our families in search of ourselves and our peers. These shifts are inextricable, since really we seek other people for their thoughts, views, and beliefs: to be completely attached to the home—to use it as a base upon which everything else is built—is to be completely attached to the set of thoughts that you were born into, and this is clearly unreasonable and intellectually unhealthy. I don’t suggest the abandonment of the home, but I do suggest the abandonment of the home as a home. We are old enough to find an intellectual home in ourselves.

The most transformative debate we will have is with ourselves in isolation. A computer can’t reason or advance ideas because all of its smallest units of processing function uniformly, and exclusively cooperatively, without any room for disagreement. Our brains are structured similarly with billions of parallel processing units, but neurons are not confined to function merely algorithmically. We can simultaneously hold an idea and its inverse. We sacrifice certainty for innovation, holding hundreds of shades of an idea and hundreds of counter-ideas. We are constantly in a state of hesitation, self-argument, and ambivalence, and this is not just a fluke of our cognitive apparatus, but rather requisite for any complex thought. The inner dialectic, requiring fragile isolation, is the breeding ground of critical and analytical thought, the precursor to collaboration, and the only path to truly original ideas.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies.


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Anonymous posted on

Well written and thought provoking.

"The inner dialectic, requiring fragile isolation, is the breeding ground of critical and analytical thought, the precursor to collaboration, and the only path to truly original ideas."

...hope to see more of that. Well done