Recently, I have become obsessed with listening to podcasts whenever I am doing any task that doesn’t require a great deal of concentration. Today, I listened to one about life at university, and the structural barriers and micro-aggressions that students of colour often face at elite institutions. I was taken aback by the podcasters’ recounts of their experiences, and listened attentively to their advice for dealing with such situations. In particular, they all agreed that, prior to starting university – or perhaps even a new job – we should ensure that we are equipped with a strong sense of self. We must know exactly who we are, so that others cannot be the ones who define us, especially if they are motivated by prejudice.
Of course, this is not new advice: philosophers have always stressed the crucial importance of knowing ourselves. But hearing this adage again, put forth in the context of university and the transition between adolescence and adulthood, really got me thinking about who I am, fundamentally. I have always yearned to have a solid sense of self, and I have always sought to entrap myself within definitions, looking for ways to explain and justify myself.
But in these lengthy years of existence, this has proven, thus far, to be a difficult feat: like most fellow teenagers, I have already undergone several ‘phases’ (including an embarrassing spiritual ‘hippie’ one) as well as countless changes in preference across a range of things. Moreover, I am a natural empath, so when socialising, I tend to subconsciously ‘read the room’ before deciding on how to behave. Does this fact undermine my ability to have a strong sense of self?
More importantly, who on earth – who in the universe – am I? I wonder if I am – if we all are – a personified version of Theseus’ Ship, constantly rebuilding ourselves, and constantly having our experiences remodel us. Is my name the only consistent element of my identity, juxtaposed with all this essential fluidity? I mean, I vaguely know who I am in this moment. I am a sixth form student (at least, for the next six months). I like podcasts, the colour yellow, coffee, procrastinating. I am an INFJ and live in East London. And so on. But that could all change in an instant. I find myself questioning, in this moment, which parts of me will remain constant over the next decade or so, and which parts will merely become more little cut-outs for me to stick into my giant metaphorical scrapbook.
(And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to induce an intense identity crisis, on command).
Sadia Ahmed, 2019