Who We Become

Caroline ColwellNovember 28, 2016The PsycheFeatures
Who We Become

Artwork by Lucienne Mettam

It was freshman year. I sat at lunch wearing a yellow Oxford button-up and loafers. Suddenly, the girl to my right interjected. “Why are all the girls here so preppy?”

I was confused, but she continued. “Hi! I’m Sarah. I just moved from Oakland this year.” She wore black combat boots, black jeans, a chunky sweater, and an over-sized scarf. That day Sarah and I became friends. But the Sarah I know today is not the girl who introduced herself four years ago.

The question of what shapes human identity is complicated and hotly debated. It is a question of nature versus nurture. Are we born with our individual personalities defined, or do our life experiences help us grow into the people we become? John Locke answered this question with his theory of Tabula Rasa, or “blank slate,” which he described in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Tabula Rasa suggests that one’s experiences shape the mind, generating unique personalities. Locke argued that we are born completely uninfluenced. Others have ascribed to the ideas of Nativism and Innatism, believing that we are born innately “us,” with a fixed personality and set of values that guide our lives. Both Innatists and Nativists claim that the psyche emerges with ideas and knowledge, therefore one’s personality is not shaped solely by experience or the senses. The theory of Innatism holds that God or a god-like figure equipped the human mind with the innate ideas and principles that characterize each individual. Nativism claims that innate beliefs and personalities result from one’s genetic make-up.

Faced with these conflicting philosophies, I am left wondering which is true. This question is particularly relevant to high school students, who are constantly trying to “find themselves” amid the pressures of school and social life. The question I wonder, however, is whether there is even anything to find? Is there something within us that must be discovered, or do our identities change with each new experience? I have come to disagree with both the ideas of Tabula Rasa and Innatism. While I do believe that the things we encounter throughout our lives shape our personalities, I have found that it is the unique qualities with which we are born that guide the different ways we respond to life.

Watching my friend Sarah’s transformation over the past three years has helped me see this. During our freshman year, Sarah was a self-proclaimed “hipster.” She made every effort to rebel against suburban trends, and boasted about her familiarity with Oakland and Berkeley, two larger cities near where we live in California. Sophomore year Sarah joined the cross-country team. She sold her combat boots on eBay and turned to LuluLemon, Patagonia, and North Face. Working out became a daily necessity. Her new best friends and role models were girls on the varsity cross-country team and she abandoned thrifting and exploring Berkeley. Was this genuine or had Sarah, influenced by the cross-country team, just changed her mind about who she thought she was “supposed” to be? “All the other girls on Varsity looked so professional in their windbreakers,” Sarah told me. “I just looked up to them. They were the best on the team and all I wanted was to be like them.”

Although we had been friends for a while, junior year was when Sarah and I became closer. The four of us had formed a core group who hung out every Friday night. We are relatively conservative in style and personality; we study hard and rarely get caught up in the hectic social scene. Quickly, Sarah jumped on board selling all her sporty clothes, and restocking her wardrobe with J. Crew and Vineyard Vines. Watching her make this third transition I couldn’t help but wonder if she had made these choices because she finally found something innate in herself and truly enjoyed the identity that went along with these preppy styles. Or if her friendship with us had altered Sarah’s perception of herself.

Each time she changed what she wore to fit in with those surrounding her, she also seemed to shift the person who she was. She spoke differently, adopting the Berkeley lingo of “hella” and “chill” when she first came to our school, shifting to abbreviations that the track team used during sophomore year. And then changing again to fit our friend group when we became closer. Her attitudes towards others changed. She treated people based on the social situation. Her true feelings about each of these stages (and the new attitude, clothing, and speaking style that came with it) were never truly revealed to me. But I wonder if Sarah knew the “truth” about herself, because her willingness to change so frequently and drastically seemed to suggest that any “true” self was either too deeply hidden or not known at all. Sarah always says that she wants her fashion to be a reflection of her personality; it is her way of telling the world who she is without her ever having to say a word. Defining her identity with clothes ended up being more than just a superficial way of presenting herself; it became a way for her to project a certain image but hide the parts she did not want seen.

Senior year has brought about a fourth shift, one that seems to reflect a new level of integration. Sarah is an athletic and intelligent teenager from Oakland who has connected with three preppy girls. When she has allowed this truer personality to shine, she has found more valuable, less superficial, connections. This is because her friendships reflect her actual perspectives rather than the beliefs that she feels she must have based on her environment.

As Sarah matured, she has come to realize that she allowed herself to be trapped by stereotypes because she was searching for a sense of security. “I realize now that I was dressing that way because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. Seeing everyone at school wearing the same thing each day eventually gets to you. You learn to like what you see. I do like it, it just doesn’t reflect me,” she said. Now Sarah attributes her need for security to the events of her past; she was brought up in a multi-cultural household with a Chinese father and a liberal American mother. This mishmash of values instilled in Sarah a desire for definition. Her parent’s divorce when she was fourteen was another source of instability and confusion in the months before she entered high school. This led her to search for greater meaning to make it easier for her to accept their divorce.

I still wonder if Sarah’s behavior will continue to change and if this new Sarah is just another stage, but as I’ve spent more time with her and discovered more about her own values, I’ve gained more faith in her sense of self. Just like the rest of us, Sarah is not done changing and her desire to find answers after a questioning childhood reflects a greater vulnerability to a closer circle of friends. As a senior, Sarah has finally begun admitting that she is not entirely the “hella chill” hipster from Oakland with the socialist ideals and fighting hatred of the suburbs. Nor is she the conservative prepster who values stability over unpredictable risk. She is less a mirror of her surroundings than she was before.

We are always changing. Like Sarah, my personality is a mixture of my environment and the traits that comprise the core of my being. Our experiences and the people we encounter shape who we become, but there is an innate identity with which we are born that causes us to respond uniquely to these events. Sarah has proved that. Although my three best friends have all experienced similar challenges — divorce and pressure from their parents to excel in school — each of them is different. Each has a different story and an innate personality guiding them to react individually to new situations, and to the experiences of hardship, joy, and pain. In Sarah’s case, the people surrounding her throughout high school influenced her opinions, but a deeper need for definition is what has also made her so receptive to the opinions of others. I believe this is true for each one of us. This is what differentiates us from each other. Although both Locke and the Innatists were on the right track, the truth behind human identity cannot be defined by nature or nurture alone. Who we are is a reflection of both our environment and our true, original selves. The traits we had before the clothes, the attitude, and the speaking styles of the world, shape what we will eventually become.

Caroline Colwell is a senior at Miramonte High School in the Bay Area of California. In her free time, she enjoys sailing, running, and helping run her non-profit organization, Harambee East Africa.