The Condition of Being Oneself
Some days I feel old. I know I’m not—I just hit 19 and I’m young and thriving. But some days, I just feel like I’ve seen all types of people. I’m taking a class right now (hence the reason for this post) which is based on American identities. I’m a sophomore at a college in the western New York area. Throughout the almost two decades of my life, I have gone through changes and events that have shaped who I’ve become, and helped solidify my own identity. Some of these things were negative and some were positive, but overall they allowed me to grow as a person and find myself. Though I wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat some of the bad—I’m not masochistic in the least—I know that experiencing them ended up benefiting me in the long run. Among the most important things that I value about myself are my personality, my passions, my attitude towards others, and the people with whom I associate myself.
Though I am far from perfect, I usually try to go by the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. This was something emphasized in my life growing up, and something I strongly value. At points, I was known for being blond—just the hair color, not the stereotype that typically goes with it. I still remember hearing a blonde joke for the first time, and not understanding why the girl with light hair was supposedly stupid. I knew I wasn’t, so I never cared about that stereotype. I was the gleeful little girl with pale Parisian curls and bright blue eyes that were usually lost in a book. I was recognized for being happy and smiling continuously as a child and part of that identity translated into who I am as a young adult.
I love smiling. And I love that people smile when they’re happy, but smiling also makes people happy. It’s a wonderful little cycle. The attitude I put out is the same kind that I like to see in my friends. I try to surround myself with happy, confident people who have a love and passion for life. I do not drink or do drugs, and the majority of my friends are very similar to me—at the very least, they drink minimally which I don’t mind. I feel that a crucial part of maturing is the realization of what traits you value most in yourself and the people you have in your life and making sure that those qualities are noticeable.
The things in life that bring me joy are also an important part of my identity. I love horseback riding, drawing, writing, playing flute, photography and many other art forms. I prefer to let nature inspire me than to focus on technology. Don’t get me wrong—I love my cell phone and computer and camera. But the sun is really wonderful, and the seasons are enchanting. I get all four here, though winter is a bit longer than I would prefer. I’m more of a summer girl, for all I love snowflakes. Nature is lovely, and it’s one of the many things that I try not to take for granted. Horseback riding took up the majority of my childhood, and the responsibility that came with riding and helping to care for horses at the stable I rode at gave me maturity at a young age. All of the things that make up my hobbies and interests have given me varying experiences that continue to mold me.
Outside of these passions are incidents that took me away from them—I seem to be chronically accident-prone. Whether it was getting repeatedly ill as a child, or the nerve damage and broken ribs that kept me from doing anything for two years (the second half of my high school experience), I have had my share of hardships. These events, no matter how terrible they were at the time, allowed me to grow and appreciate how blessed I am. I’m not saying it was okay that they happened. it was not okay that I was in pain and it was not okay that doctors told me I would never get better. That was not okay with me, but those things did happen and I moved through and past them. I can’t, and won’t, say that I did it alone, though. Alone, I never would have made the same progress that I did with the people in my life supporting me.
Through these—let’s call them challenges—I tried new things, adapted to difficulties, and learned to love everything life threw at me. While it took some time to love everything life threw (and no, lemons were not chucked my way), I finally got to the point where I was tired of being angry and hurt and sad. It’s difficult to be grateful for everything all the time; I have my moments where life feels crappy, and during my challenges those moments were a lot more frequent than I’d like to admit. But I always had and have a strong foundation in my friends and family who gently remind me of the beauty there is, and I am able to go on being myself.
My family has played a key role in shaping me into the person I am and helping me solidify my own identity. Understanding my family allows someone to better understand me, and vice versa. Love is of the upmost importance—love, in the unconditional sense. My parents taught me to love everyone first, simply for being human, and to love them in different stages from that point on. That doesn’t mean trusting every person I meet—I’m not that naïve, but everyone should be recognized. My parents gave me the freedom of faith in whatever I chose to believe in, so long as I believed in something good. My family is the most important part of my life, and so much of my individuality comes from what they’ve taught me. Together they have built me up into such a strong person that I can be independent and know who I am, while still wanting to be with them. If everyone had the family life that I do, the world would be a very different place.
Growing up, my family didn’t focus on watching T.V. It was rare to ever have it on—we read an hour every day for one hour of television a week, plus one family movie every Friday night. We spent more time together as a family than glued to a show or the computer. It allowed me the chance to grow up differently than my friends. I fell in love with books and the magical place they took me, and I was often caught reading. I got teased a bit for it later on in life, but I was the bookworm of the class. I read during class, in the hallway, during lunch, on the bus, everywhere. I learned about nature and the world and every topic I could get my hands on, and starting gaining a view on the world.
I can remember the first time I was planning hanging out with a new friend and she told me we were going to her Mom’s house. Divorce had never really affected me or any part of my life, so I didn’t understand—I simply thought that meant her dad wasn’t going to be home while we were hanging out. My life was so different than most of my friends’. As I got older, I got closer to my parents—my mom in particular. While my friends were fighting with their parents, I was confiding in them. Call it crazy if you want, but my mom is my best friend, and I am not ashamed of that. She loves me unconditionally, and I love her the same way.
She’s the person that I want to end up like—she is the best person I know. She always asks me and my siblings to think about how she and Dad have raised us. My mom asks us what we would do the same, and what we would do differently. I wouldn’t change a thing—I couldn’t have been raised better. I am so blessed to have her, and to experience life with her in it. She pushes me to be better, to think of others, to take less for granted and to forgive even when I’m hurt. I couldn’t ask for a better person, and I would never change my childhood. Maybe that’s what sets me apart—there isn’t a single moment that I would change. Even the rare moments when we fought taught me valuable things. (Mostly that she was always right. And I mean always).
I mentioned that one of my challenges was nerve damage. It happened the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, and it threw me for a bit of a loop. A week after the initial injury, I went off to visit family in Germany. I had broken my ribs once before, and it started out as a second set of breaks, which damaged the nerves and caused two years of extreme pain. It wasn’t until several months after the initial damage that I realized that I was getting worse, not better. My mom and the rest of my family—and my true friends—got me through it. A few people who I thought were friends abandoned me during this time. High school was not the best time of my life, but I learned from it, and I’m happy to say that I’m a better person because of it.
My mom woke me up every morning and told me it would be okay. She took me to over fourteen doctors, sat with me through every painful test they put me through. She was the reason we found a way that I could heal. After being told I would never get better, this was beyond a miracle. But it was during that time that my mom became more than just my mother—she translated from friend and mother, to best friend. I trust her with everything. She got me through the worst time in my life, and helped me appreciate it simultaneously. Even when it hurt to breathe, even when laughter was excruciating, movement brought me to tears, and fabric on my skin was agonizing, she managed to make me appreciate every intake and exhale of air, and every smile that cracked over my lips. She makes my world better. It’s corny and bit of a cliché, but true.
Growing up the way that I did was what allowed me to become the person I want to be. I had amazing role models—I still do. My elder sister developed into one alongside my parents and relatives. I have constant encouragement coming from all aspects of my life. If ever I have a rough day, I can scroll through my contact list, pick out a name, and know that whoever it is will be there to make me smile and laugh again. I am who I am because of the people and experiences in my life, and I hope to only continue moving forward. I can’t imagine a different life for myself—I wouldn’t want it.
As I mentioned earlier, stereotypes never affected me as a young child. Everyone gets labeled as something—it’s just how life works. But it didn’t really strike me as odd, or mean. The blond thing was more of a way to recognize which kid in the classroom I was, and never referred to my intelligence—according to school grades at least. Quoting Einstein, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” There are plenty of things that I don’t know, but I like to think that I’m pretty smart. Once my last few elementary school years rolled around and middle school happened, I got hit by a few stereotypes. I was the bookworm, the know-it-all with glasses, and the girl who didn’t know nearly enough about fashion. Looking back, I think I was adorable. Some of the kids my age didn’t agree at the time. Again, I had that strong support in my family who told me day in and day out that I was beautiful, and my friends concurred. Maybe it was their job to tell me that, but it was nice hearing it anyway.
The stereotype of being an American was something I never fully understood, especially as a child. Other than the national anthem each morning, traveling to Canada for summers and other countries for vacations, I had no concept of the difference between places other than climate. I didn’t understand what it meant to be American versus Canadian. And for a long time, I didn’t care. It was a stereotype I received without giving it any acknowledgement. September 11th, 2001, allowed me to start to learn about my country, though I was young—a fourth grader who knew very little about the world, and even less about what was going on around her. My book knowledge usually led me into the realm of fantasy, of wild stories that weren’t much related to current events. After that day, the national anthem finally held meaning, and I watched our country go to war to ‘fight the bad guys’. That day changed everything for me, as I am sure it changed for everyone else, and allowed me to start to form my own ideas and concepts about my country and what we stood for. For once, I thought about the pledge of allegiance as I recited it every morning with my class. This all came into play about seven years later, when I made my first out-of-country trip on my own to visit relatives in Germany. The time I spent there allowed me to come back and reflect on what I knew of America, and what I decided I wanted to better understand. I had been planning the trip for about a year and a half, and just a week or so before I was scheduled to leave, I broke my ribs, which resulted in the nerve damage I told you about earlier. Nevertheless, I wasn’t about to give up my trip for what I thought was just a few broken bones. Climbing up a several mile walk in the Alps to reach the castle that Disney based theirs off of is just one example of my stubborn refusal to miss out on the trip.
After two planes, four movies, a thrilling ride on the Autobahn and several cups of coffee I arrived in Jetzendorf, Germany. Once there, I saw firsthand that people got a look of disdain on their faces when I mentioned that I was American. Especially the expression on the face of the customs officer when I pronounced the ‘J’ in the town’s name, not knowing it was actually pronounced with a ‘Y’ sound. It was only after I tried a little bit of German and mentioned that I was staying with family that I was accepted among my cousins’ friends and community members. Though I stayed for almost three straight weeks, it took me a great deal of the first week to earn smiles from anyone but the boys my age.
It was an interesting experience, to say the least. I learned the words kleinen löffel, which means small spoon, gute nacht, which means goodnight, and guten tag, which means good afternoon. These simple phrases—though the spoon was only useful at breakfast when I needed it—allowed me to show others that I was trying, even if my language skills weren’t the best. By finally getting to know the people, I began to learn of their culture and was able to compare it to what I knew of my own. Attempting their culture showed people that I was more than a tourist.
I was surprised that my German cousins knew more about American politics than I did; I had very little to say on the subject, and simply listened as they spoke both of their own country’s history and present state, as well as my own. Family identity was strongly emphasized as well, and I began to learn a little bit about my German roots—including the knowledge that my last name comes from a town in Germany. My great-great-something grandfather was the major, and as such took on the town’s name as his own. My name would have been thirty letters long, not including my middle name or mother’s maiden name. Imagine bubbling that in on a scantron. One of my cousins, a year older than I, was a history fanatic, and taught me about the different castles of her country and all the people who lived there. She spoke German and English fluently and was learning French, which amazed me at age fifteen. I had enough difficulty with learning a second language, let alone a third.
Speaking to my parents about my trip helped me finalize some ideas that had been brewing. I figured out that in most other countries, children are fluent in at least two languages, if not three, and that it is much more beneficial to have that kind of knowledge. I was able to understand just a little better the debates over the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables about politics, and interject a few ideas of my own (especially the idea of being proud to be an American, even if America didn’t always make the best decisions. After all, we’re all only human, right?). Finally, my trip allowed me to start forming better opinions about what I wanted from my country, and what I wanted to put into it.
This trip started my increased interest in my country and the events that were occurring around me that I hadn’t ever taken the time to read about. I was able to identify what I did and didn’t like about current stereotypes, and figure out where I wanted to fit into society. By viewing America from the eyes of others, I could be both critical and forgiving, and gain a wider perspective of both my country and the world around it.
As you probably know, Americans are given hundreds of different stereotypes by other countries, other groups of people, and by themselves. Many of those broad judgments are those of bullies—negative statements that make them feel better about themselves and put others down. Some of the most well-known ones include the dumb blonde, an ignorant or naïve personality, someone who is fat and most likely lazy too, the greedy money-hungry CEO, the lethargic unemployed, and the stupid. There are plenty of others, but this outlines a basic idea of the negative view that many take. We all know someone, or know of someone, who fits into one of those stereotypes. But I believe that people should focus towards the positives—American or not, though it would be my preference that America take on a new stereotype.
Looking at a smaller group of people, the most well-liked person is kind, generous, friendly, and clever. This basic idea is the epitome of what America should strive towards. Instead, we are known for politicians who are pro-war, and who focus on protecting big businesses and not the everyday person. The person that I want to be is who I think America should try to be. Our national anthem is about war; it would be my preference to change it to America the Beautiful, which speaks about what there is to be appreciative of in this country. Starting with the basics is one way to begin a larger change. We don’t need a drinking song about war as our national anthem. Seriously, what kind of message is that?
There are plenty of people who do fit what I believe is the perfect stereotype, and while some are American, these types of people live all over the world. These are the same people who went to Haiti after the earthquake, who donate money to struggling causes, and who visit countries in need of aid, or send money to help. I believe that if the news focused more on the positive—such as the aforementioned instances—that people would start to hold a better connotation with the idea of being American. I know that there were stories written on such events—but they seemed few and far between in comparison to the stories written about the destruction, or the politics that followed.
Nowadays, in order to understand American identities and stereotypes, people must look at the psychology of the mind. So often, people focus on the negative and allow themselves to be oblivious to the wonderful things happening around them. It is easier to use a stereotype about a group of people than it is to take the time to learn about them and understand them. I believe that people should first look inward before trying to use stereotypes. Most of the time people project what they don’t like about themselves onto others. Furthermore, people rely on the idea of the seven deadly sins (sloth, anger, greed, pride, gluttony, lust, and envy) to define others around them. These are the most basic ideas to pull upon, but almost every stereotype stems from them because they are pointed out throughout history as being the worst part of humanity.
Though the objective of my class was to focus on American identities, I think that it is also important to consider the identities of the rest of the world, because their backgrounds are what add to their views and perceptions of Americans. By better understanding others, we can better understand the flaws of our community and have a hope at correcting them. In general, it would benefit everyone to recognize the seven deadly sins as part of all of our lives, but then to move forward and strive towards including the seven contrasting holy virtues to allow ourselves to improve and become better people. Those are: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. This goes back to the idea of the perfect stereotype, and what people should focus on moving towards.
I believe that we as a people have to acknowledge both the negative and the positive about our community as a whole, and work on improving the negative instead of using them as stereotypes. Simply pointing out the undesirable does not change anything; it just allows people to vent without taking any true action. I feel that in order to define America as a whole, we have to define the everyday person: imperfect, but trying for something better.