Identity theorist Erik Erikson said, “To truly meet others with whom we share a ‘we,’ one must have a sense of ‘I’.”
I’ve been thinking about identity lately and this quote often plays in my mind when that subject comes up. We inevitably see the world through our own lens. Our history – the good and the bad – informs our opinions, our conceptions, and how we interpret what we see, hear, and do. Even words take on different meanings to different people. This means that if we don’t understand the ‘I,’ we will struggle with the ‘we.’
One of the reasons traveling outside of the area in which a person grew up is helpful is because it shows us the ‘I’ in ourselves. We meet people who have a different history, which, in turn, aids in our development of personal identity. We learn what foods we like, what customs we enjoy, and what is inherently ‘I’ as opposed to what is universally accepted.
A memorable example comes from when I traveled with a girl from California. We were about to go walking around a big city after a church service, so I had planned to wear tennis shoes with my skirt. She quickly stopped me from committing that fashion faux pas but it took me awhile to understand what happened.
See, I grew up in the Midwest. Midwesterners are inherently practical. Walking downtown Chicago in the windy winter without proper gear – which always leaves everyone looking worse for wear no matter how one goes about it – is looked at as crazier than the fashion crimes committed. As long as underneath the abominable snow monster look, fashion is restored, of course.
Because of that event, I learned about ‘I.’ I learned about being a Midwesterner. I learned that not everyone thinks like a Midwesterner. I learned that weather plays a huge role in identity development. I learned that it was okay to embrace my practicality while appreciating the hip advice from my travel companion. Because I understood the ‘I,’ I could have the confidence to welcome the ‘we.’