Batman dons a mask to save the world — or Gotham, at the very least. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden changes persona to change the world. Star Wars’ Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader to commit genocide. Stories love showing characters with some sort of inner battle, and why not? The image of a tiny angel and devil trying to persuade their ward is ancient — conceptually dating back at least to the good and bad angels in Doctor Faustus, first published in 1604. Stretching the concept to any kind of internal conflict and self-doubt, and you can go all the way back to Beowulf, all the way back to sometime during the 6th century! Is it just fantasy and imagination that keeps it so interesting?
Popular culture has long taught us that self-doubt and crises of identity are inherently negative, and should be avoided. There’s the exaggerated split personality — one persona being a murderous psycho, as seen in… Psycho, of course. There are the heroes that give up or lose their powers because of sudden doubt and fear, as in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight Rises. More relatable, there is the sitcom go-to: the midlife crisis. 90s sitcom Friends featured one such episode, where Ross
at age 30 decides he needs a shiny new sports car to get him back on track. He quickly regrets the decision after getting it stuck in a parking space, and seeing a much older man drive by in the same make and model.
This is what television and film teach us about identity crises: They’re awful. If you end up back where you started, you’re one of the lucky ones. Everyone else ends up poorer, injured, traumatized, loveless, or any combination of the above. Sure, there’s a lesson to be learned somewhere in there, but the pain and effort make the end value shaky at best.
It’s just not true. Not absolutely, at any rate.
Now, I’m an 18-year-old college student, so I can’t exactly speak from personal experience on midlife or huge, life-altering crises. Instead, I must look to the authors that have inspired me over the past six months.
You may recognize the name Jonathan Safran Foer. Author of Everything is Illuminated (2002) and creative writing teacher at New York University, he seems to have his life figured, now at the age of 38. If you don’t know him by name, you may remember seeing a film adaptation of his work.
Foer went ahead and wrote a book that details his own crisis. The book is Eating Animals, and it is about his path and decision to be vegetarian. His conflict and argument for eating meat was largely the cultural and sentimental value, whether he would raise his son as a vegetarian. If he stopped eating meat altogether, his grandma’s chicken and carrots recipe would be lost to his children. He argued that the thought of remembering his loved ancestors and their culture in the food was a greater factor than nutritional value or status, much like the saying “It’s the thought that counts.” Or, as I prefer:
The point is that the recipe is what has been handed to us, and we can remember and honor the person who created the recipe by following it. To Foer, giving up meat meant giving up a part of his grandma and part of his childhood.
After digging deep into the food industry and factory farms, he decided that his loss at giving up meat did not outweigh the inhumanity he witnessed. However, he was also able to reconcile that giving up meat did not mean forgetting about his grandmother altogether. He also felt more confident than ever before in his lifestyle choice.
Foer had a positive outcome to his crisis. It was less than pleasant at times — he recalls sneaking into a poultry farm, the smells and sights, but he didn’t falter and fall. He pushed through to the truth, and was prepared to use it to decide what’s best for his family.
A greater and more frequent crisis is the need for individuality, at least a sense of individuality. Batman allegedly dresses as a bat to “strike fear into the hearts of criminals,” but it also happens that he was designed to be different and easily identifiable to comic book readers. It’s a bit of a joke how similar Batman and Superman looked in their 90s cartoon form that switching costumes left the bad guys completely unable to tell who was whom. Although with masks, it was recycled in the 2008 Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon.
Tracing back to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans strive for good esteem and self actualization. Simply put, people want achievement and respect (esteem) and to realize their individual potential (actualization).
Philosopher and media analyst Marshal McLuhan wrote, in his book The Medium is the Massage, “The Family circle has widened. … Telstar far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. … Now all the world is a sage.” He continues on the subject of a romanticized past with “We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land.”
See, suburbia is important because it marks a counter-revolution to urbanization. Where people were — and often still are — rushing to cities and clamoring for job opportunities, middle and upper-middle class citizens separated and claimed their own plot of so-called paradise. In the United States of America, the Civil Rights movement led to a mass exodus of white people from cities to suburbs, largely in fear of aggression from such groups as the militant Black Panthers.
Despite leaving behind the supposed aggressors, the fear remains, and is redoubled by the homogeneity of suburban life. House after house after house of strangers who just happen to live near each other, not really forming a community.
This was the living situation of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, a.k.a., the Columbine killers.
Dave Cullen, investigative reporter spent 10 years documenting research on the case and the aftermath before compiling it into the book Columbine, and it still came back inconclusive as to the exact reason why the two boys committed the Columbine massacre.
Special agent and clinical psychologist Dwayne Fuselier was the lead FBI investigator on the Columbine case, and supplied Cullen with his psychoanalysis of the two boys. Boiled down, Dylan Klebold was manic-depressive and Eric Harris showed signs of being a psychopath.
This is all well and good, except that Fuselier himself acknowledged that a diagnosis of psychopathy below the age of 20 is unreliable; identifying behaviors too closely resemble typical teen angst. Despite that declaration, articles such as this one proclaim it as the absolute truth.
On top of a psychoanalysis, Fuselier also dug through the perpetrators’ journals, home movies, and schoolwork to identify a motive. Eric Harris claimed he wanted infamy on a large scale, but that still does not explain his target.
Fuselier discovered that both felt like outcasts and confined by the small town. Eric in particular voiced hate for the human assembly line that was high school. The requirements to fit a narrow expectation of the suburban schoolboy and the apparent compliance by his classmates fueled his hate.
Eric and Dylan were both going through crises of identity, of finding a place in the societal food chain, of finding a place where their free expression would not be stamped down. Unable to resolve the conflict, they quit while they were ahead, so to speak.
Closer to home, my cousin also had a break to find himself. His parents continue to be devout Catholics, turning to a prayer for everything. Without feeling any need to put down their practices, he just let himself drift away from the Church. My uncle did not take it at all as I expected. Instead of reacting with aggression or disappointment, he told my cousin to seek the truth — that one day he will understand the faith.
By only nudging the crisis to a resolution, they came to a closer understanding and trust than before. It was an open channel for communication. It was a good thing.
Think of an identity crisis as a separate person. Instead of suffocating it or trying to buy its friendship, just stop. Sit down. Have a proper conversation with it. Like a friend with symptoms that don’t seem to add up, take it to a doctor for a professional opinion.
“Battle of the Superheroes.” Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Warner Bros Animation. Cartoon Network. 25 Mar. 2011.
Cullen, David. Columbine. New York: Twelve. 2009. Print.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Print.
“Knight Time.” Superman: The Animated Series. Warner Bros Animation. WB Television. 10 Oct. 1998
McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam, 1967. Print.