I’m not sure when I developed a fear of choosing a hill to die on, but, like all good adults, I’ve decided that my childhood is the easiest to blame. I go back and forth on whether I would raise my children the way I was raised. But for all its merits, I believe that I grew up in a way that deeply entrenched the notion that the people in my life would expect different and often conflicting things of me. In response, somewhere along the way I decided that there was more to be gained through adaptability to multiple modes of existence rather than through faithfulness to “being me.”
My mother was a military kid, and as military kids often do, she never repeated a year in the same school. As a child I found her military upbringing rather hard to believe. Many people may remember their mothers to be something akin to a drill sergeant, but I do not recall ever ascribing such a title to my own mother. There didn’t seem anything militaristic about her. But whenever I describe her today as someone who is socially capable but reserved, I wonder whether it was this upbringing that brought this about her. That, and the fact that she enlisted our help in completely rearranging the entire layout of our house every couple months (I grew up thinking that this was normal).
She once told me that what she wanted for her own children was for us to have childhood friends - a concept that did not exist for her (to this day her only “childhood friends” are those that she made in college, and I don’t recall ever meeting them since I was about five years old). I think she believes that she has accomplished this goal. I do have friends that I keep in touch with, and I was fortunate enough to live for twelve years in one city (Palo Alto) and then for another four years in the city of my birth (Seoul).
I believe that she has indeed accomplished this goal, but I believe that one thing that she overlooked is that for children, a community is often a lot smaller than any one city. Even though I have moved very few times in my life, I went to: three different preschools, four different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and two different high schools (if I double count a middle/high school because I attended a middle school in 9th grade). When my friends were studying abroad in college and interrupting their four year tenure at one school to go to a different one, I wondered why the experience did not have as much of a transformational impact on me as it did on them, until I realized that interrupting schooling to switch schools was the only way in which I had ever lived. I moved very few times, but in essence, I moved very many times, and thus trauma begot trauma.
One common refrain in college was that I could sustain a conversation over multiple hours with someone, where I got my partner to share every personal detail of their life, secure in the sense that they were engaging in an equal exchange of trust and vulnerability. But after the conversation ended, the person would realize that in fact they had only been allowed to enter into a tightly controlled chamber of my life, and that I had in fact been in total control of the conversation, and with it, what I chose to reveal and what I chose to conceal.
I don’t hear that as often anymore, at least among friends that I have made since college. But this is more of a symptom of the fact that I have made my intentions less obvious and that I have made a conscious effort to reveal more information. I still believe that there is a part of me that is very attuned to what version of me that people want from me, and I rise to the occasion by putting on a performance of what is expected of me, with very little aberrations from this norm.
One look at my childhood is all I need to know that I grew addicted to the prospect of being able to reinvent myself, each time I moved. This is not to say that I enjoyed what I now believe was a survival mechanism. I don’t believe that I was too young to allow an identity form for long enough for me to be able to confidently “be myself,” and so I have gone through life searching for what is acceptable and respected in the eyes of others and performing an identity that fits that in-group.
There are times in which that has served me well. I’ve been fortunate enough to be welcomed into spaces that I would probably not have been welcomed into if I was not perceived to be a member of the in-group. I’ve been in enough church retreats and substance-infused nights to believe that there are more commonalities between the two than would often meet the eye. I’ve found that people generally trust me because they don’t need to attach a label to me that would be antithetical to their existence.
But I also believe that I’ve damaged some relationships with a very unique kind of betrayal - the kind of betrayal where I am not whom the other person thought that I was, through no fault of their own. I think it takes a very deep relationship with me in a lot of different contexts for me to “break character.” Therefore, a far more common scenario is when a friend of mine witnesses me interacting with another friend and sees a completely different version of me than what they had known.
So how do you distill an identity that is really you, and how do you identify what small part of you is nature in a sea of nurture? That is what I am still trying to understand.