Identity Crisis And Musing on the Words of Mary Catherine Bateson

The Author

E. Alana James

E. Alana James

Dr E Alana James is reinventing herself again! Coming full circle to the first love of her life - art - and bringing back to her images all the lessons of her life as author, researcher, academic and wife. Concerned mostly with the idea of images as vehicles for expression of the truth of our inner and outer life experience.

As I continue to read Mary Catherine Bateson’s book, Composing a Further Light: the Age of Active Wisdom,and reflect upon her words as they relate to my discontent at turning 60, I am also reminded of the work of William Bridges. In this book, Transitions, he posited a three step model to change: first we end one stage of life, then we spent some time in the neutral zone not quite knowing where we’re going next, and finally we emerge (almost like a butterfly out of the cocoon) into our new lives.

The neutral zone is very uncomfortable and we tend to run away from it. Thinking about my life these days, this may be why I have been reading so many books lately, my experience being that fiction takes away the sharp edges of discomfort.

I am, in equal measure, comforted by Bateson’s acknowledgment that, “We do not need formulas or rigid models to follow; we need to be drawn into a common process of search that will suggest new ways of being.” She points out that healthy longevity has presented us with a second identity crisis and that all identity crisis occur at three levels: how we define ourselves, our understanding and ability to engage with intimacy, and our generativity, or how we contribute to our world.

No wonder the neutral zone comes up as a response mechanism when we find ourselves in inner turmoil at all three of those very basic levels. If we go forward with the attitude that life is “an improvisational art form,” then a contemplative way of being may hone off the rough edges, the called the neutral zone, and can transform us. These are the reasons we write books, blog, etc – and why I write this column.

Remembering that every component of the identity crisis has two parts the practical and spiritual, let’s muse about each.

Our Identity

How do we define our identity in practical terms? I would imagine that for most of us it has to do with our roles. We are a mother, a teacher, a businessperson, etc. But what is our spiritual identity? Early in our lives, spirit and emotion are likely all tangled together, and our spiritual identity would have played off of our sense of worthiness. Spiritual traditions have a single or multiple source of God or Goddess who model for us competencies toward which we strive as human beings. Many of the spiritual texts that I appreciate allude to a divine source of life energy which loves us unconditionally– or if not love exactly, find us worthy, whole, appropriate, no matter what choices we make. Therefore, I would see Adulthood II as moving into a new sense of assurance and comfort with my place on this earth.

As I go through this transition I am working with a coach and she has a wonderful image of this universal creative energy- the ability to create the outrageous abundance that I see merged with the next section of my life. Consider Niagra falls – if that is not outrageous abundance then what is? These days when I need a good dose of my own abilities to create, as hooked to the divine source that I believe is within all of us, I listen to the sounds and see the falls. YouTube is wonderful for this. My identity is embedded within my experience of that life giving force.

Our Ability to Engage with Intimacy

Mary Catherine Bateson writes about people who find themselves alone, divorced, or widowed, and their search for marriage as part of Adulthood II. Having just added a civil partnership ceremony, and enjoying the new acknowledgment of this role in our community, I am struck with how fortunate it is in my life that my own deeper commitment to my partner came at this juncture. Whatever our circumstances, this part of our lives require us to further develop the web of connectedness between ourselves and our intimate connections with other people.

I was speaking with my friend Tracesea, who is close to 40, and I realized that I have many friends who are also that age. I count myself blessed by their company, in the sharing of their lives and ideals. They keep me inspired and energized rather than allowing me to slip into complacency or sameness. Perhaps that’s a major ingredient of intimacy, the ability to take in things different than either you are used to or than what you might choose for yourself if by yourself.

Vulnerability is a component of intimacy. For me, writing, sharing ideas such as these on the web is a very intimate form of exchange. And like all such exchanges, we need to have strong enough self-assurance, that if we come up with skeptical or unfeeling responses from others, we are not crushed by them. Perhaps the spiritual side of life helps us in maintaining that assured level of identity which allows for greater vulnerability. If we are grounded in a sense of our place in the universe then we do not take the ups and downs of others so seriously, nor are we diminished by our own circumstances. Certainly at the end of our lives, when we often will be cared for very intimately by other people, this grounding becomes crucial.

Our Generativity

My brother once told me that how we contribute to the world is a key ingredient for our fulfillment and happiness. He was discussing the challenge of being out of work. For many people, if not most in Adulthood II, work becomes either a thing of the past, or at least not the center of the life as it once was. Some see this as ageism, where because you are not contributing to your world in a way that earns a living you somehow are seen as less than others who are younger.

Do we move to a place where we rely partially on our legacy, or what are we leaving behind us or must we always be actively contributing? I suspect the answer to this varies from person to person and changes over time. In a practical sense our legacy may be children, a business, etc. Perhaps the subtler, and much harder to track, generativity is involved in, and as a result of, our relationship with others and is a greater legacy. As a teacher, I have lived for years with the mythology that it is with the people we reach through our teaching that build a legacy we have. Consider the movies such as Mr. Holland’s Opus, where a frustrated composer finds fulfillment as a high school music teacher, and in a very teary-eyed ending realizes the affect of his teaching on building the people in his community. Whether this is enough to satisfy our drive is a personal choice.

Perhaps, in a spiritual format, Adulthood II is about continuing to follow our spirit and contribute to our world but in a way that appreciates and celebrates our small legacies and contributions as much as our big ones. However we each see it, our souls as well as out communities are enriched whenever we consciously reach out.