Identity Crisis Series: The Damage of Autonomy

I briefly touched on the harmful impact autonomy has on an individual in the first post of this series, but I’d like to elucidate further. First of all, it is important to break down the meaning of autonomy and apply it in a culturally relevant manner. To be autonomous is to be self-governed or independent under a set of relative moral guidelines. In other words, “Every man for himself.” In the scientific community, I think Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary theory of natural selection, or “Survival of the Fittest,” best describes autonomy. In many ways, our society views success and happiness in this way.

But what happens when we find out that we aren’t the fastest, smartest, prettiest, or wealthiest in the food chain? Where does our identity lie when our autonomy fails us? We all reach a point some time or another when we think, “All my gifts and all my efforts must sure add up to something!” (Nathan Partain, I Need Jesus). But when they don’t, then what? If you find worth in your ability to play basketball for example, what do you do with your life when you find out from the doctor that you’ve lost your ability to walk? Or if you’re a mother of four diagnosed with a fatal disease, so you won’t get to watch your children grow into adults or even see your grandchildren? Or your wife of twelve years looks at you one day and says, “You know… I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore. I want a divorce.” The truth is sobering, especially in a world that tells us that we should do everything on our own. People always leave, and the world is a broken place. We fail others,  we fail ourselves, and others fail us. Perfection is impossible and autonomy is lonely.

Autonomy naturally encourages isolation, which is a dangerous thing. Humanity sees isolation as a method of weeding out the pain and disappointment we tend to blame others for. I don’t think it’s that far of a stretch to say that isolation is a form of perfectionism on some level. We try to control who hurts us and when, but in reality autonomy damages ourselves the most; it doesn’t take into account the importance of community. People often develop a strong sense of belonging when connected by relationships with others based on love, trust, and support. We learn our own needs by knowing when to ask for help, and more importantly we exchange that help when someone else is in need. Building community leads to healing, growing, serving, loving, and learning– all of which are vital in curing an identity crisis. When we push ourselves away and decide that it’s every man for himself, we are spitting in the face of Truth. The cure for everything is in our hand, yet we destroy every last drop. Autonomy rejects serving, loving, healing, learning, and growing. By choosing isolation, we are left with two outcomes: static growth or degeneration. How can we find our identities if we never change or if we self-destruct? Autonomy is a coward, and it feeds on our fears, insecurities, and most of all, shame. If this is the grand plan for attaining success and happiness, then I quit. The only way to break the cycle of autonomy’s damaging grip on an identity crisis is to face adversity in community with others.

Identity Crisis Series: Introduction

It’s often told that an identity crisis punches the clock at exactly the ages of 40 through 50, especially in the unhappily married community. It’s not exclusive to the underpaid and overworked 40-somethings who need a change of pace and some heavy counseling (although that stereotype can still be correct). Tradition fails to mention possibly one of the most underestimated truths in our culture: people of any age are susceptible to an identity crisis.

Developmental or childhood influences, stresses, struggles, and societal demands can all be ingredients in the melting pot of an identity crisis. Maybe it was something traumatic that happened as a child that has always mentally scarred you, maybe it was a life-altering situation that you haven’t fully dealt with, or it could even be the pressure in society to perform a certain way or look a certain part. Regardless of the cause, it is impossible to put an age restriction on an identity crisis!

So why does an identity crisis happen? Each individual has their own experiences, perceptions, and coping mechanisms. Let’s take 9/11 for example, since we’ve just recognized the fourteenth anniversary of that tragic day. Millions of Americans were impacted by the same situation, yet each person reacted in a different way entirely. Though we can all remember that day very clearly, the experience varies for everyone. We’d all been involved in the same situation, but in ways that altered our personal perceptions and ignited unique coping mechanisms on an individual basis. A fork in the road is found, and we can either retreat back to our fundamental truths to cope or try to forge our own understanding without the help of others.

An identity crisis holds that very essence. I’ve found that I’m in the middle of an identity crisis because I took a wrong turn at the fork in the road. As I’ve said before, my fundamental truths lie in Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible. My problem is not that I retreated back to my values when my world was shaken, but rather my problem is that I didn’t. Our generation has such a concentrated focus on autonomy, but nobody tells us how lonely, difficult, or unsteady it is.

Autonomy whispers, “You’ve got this! You don’t need anyone else, they’re just going to let you down!” It is just a glass ceiling that superficially holds us up in the face of gravity. It wasn’t meant to support us when the world comes crashing down, because what happens when the world shatters the glass on its way down? Are you going to fall through the ceiling and land on your foundation, or do you keep falling through the air waiting for someone or something to catch you?

The whispers of autonomy are wrong, because salvation is an external entity only. I strongly believe that if salvation could be self-governed, suicide would be impossible. If we could handle anything on our own, suicide wouldn’t overcome the depressed or lonely. Autonomy is merely an illusion, and fuel for the flames of an identity crisis.