On the Vulnerability of Identity


In my previous post, I talked about the surprising and irritating resistance to “closure” that I felt with regard to the completion of my thesis.

(The fact that I talk about it so persistently is evidence of this absence of closure. True closure is when something becomes an object of either humor or indifference. Both of the latter indicate perspective, but only humor retains the warmth of involvement.)

To be honest, I’ve always been clear about why my thesis has been a sore point. I just didn’t want to admit the reasons. But one of the things this blog has always represented for me is authenticity, and I’m not going to renege on my commitment to that value now.

The thing is, a huge part of my identity is constituted by my academic record. We’ve all got our version of this: our version of a defining quality (or set of qualities) that absolves us, redeems us or distinguishes us. We’re savvy enough to know, as a general principle, that what we have or that what we do can never exhaust who we truly are (being ≠ doing/having, or more prosaically, who we we are ≠ our accomplishments or our achievements).

Knowing that doesn’t stop us from getting our buttons pushed though when something that we (persistently and truly) believe constitutes our worth or our value is taken away from us or threatened. And my thesis has been a recent and major button-pusher, due to the simple fact that I didn’t complete it with the highest marks.

(Just typing that last sentence caused a faint sensation of vertigo and distaste.)

The irony is, I knew from the beginning that the kind of effort I was puting in to complete the requirement wasn’t the kind of effort that would merit the highest marks. And I was okay with that (or thought I was, at any rate). Life was pulling me in another direction, and I was given a choice about the set of concerns to which I would devote the majority of my attention and energy. I didn’t choose my thesis and I honestly believed I was going to be okay with the consequences.

Apparently, I wasn’t. And my own reaction took me entirely by surprise (“What??? You’re still worried about proving how smart you are? At this point in your life? That is so ten years ago!”)

So there. That’s why my thesis is a touchy subject for me, and why I don’t feel remotely inclined to celebrate the fact that I’m graduating and that a major chapter of my life is about to close.

(It’s funny how we can keep graduating—this will be my third degree—and still keep being stuck. To paraphrase the title of one of Robert Fulghum’s books, all we ever really needed to know about life we learned in kindergarten. The challenge has always been in putting that knowledge to use. And it’s a challenge from which none of us will ever really graduate.)

Having said all of the foregoing, I do feel marginally better. Not superb, but good enough, at any rate, to finally declare that chapter closed—and good enough to see the possibility (once again) of a Ph.D.

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

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