When I was in grad school, a professor told an anecdote about an interaction she had with the teenage girl of a family she was staying with in Germany while working on her dissertation. The teenage girl was contemptuous of Americans, and one day she was going on and on about American stupidity and political naivety.
My professor, tiring of the girl’s diatribe, said, “Well, there are Americans who basically think all Germans are Nazis.”
The girl shot back, “See what I mean?”
It’s such a great story because the girl’s response is sooo like something one would expect from a teenager that it’s almost a cliché. But teenagers are like that because so much seems to be at stake for them. It’s a time when identities are being forged, sometimes painfully and sometimes against one’s will. So when a part of oneself that one has constructed by oneself is under siege, when for example it is suggested that the world-weary teen is being naïve, defenses must be raised and any possible insight fended off.
It would be nice to remember this about ourselves after we leave our teen years—even if, as it is for me, those years have been left a long time ago. Too often the supposedly unassailable positions we take are nothing more than bastions erected by our sense of identity to protect itself. In other words, we put ourselves in the positions we take, in what we say and what we do, so there’s no backing down. If we did, it might radically change who we are. We might turn into another Jerry Rubin. Shudder.
But rather than put ourselves in what we say or do, we should risk ourselves in what we say or do. Every utterance should be a bullfight. I don’t mean the kind of “risk” that is touted by the cheerleaders of the free market, either. Those “risks” aren’t taken to lose the self, but to bolster it, to make it stronger, richer, more powerful. It’s less risky than it is risqué—mere flirting with disaster. We need to understand that it is only through forgetting ourselves that we are ever truly ourselves.