When I was a kid, if I remember correctly, the first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a veterinarian (besides maybe a superhero). I also aspired to be a lobster fisherman—you know, kind of like those guys on Deadliest Catch—I think that one was inspired by a children’s book about what you can be when you’re an adult. I don’t know why I thought that was so rad at the time, I guess lobsters and other crustaceans are cool looking.
Into elementary school, there was a stint when I thought I could be a great comedian, because I made immature jokes that were well received and that even my teacher appreciated. That was short lived. There were probably a handful of other vocations I fancied I’d be good at. My first true love, however, was basketball.
Boy did I suck ass when I first started playing—a lanky, uncoordinated, nerdy kid with a bowl-cut who couldn’t dribble or make a layup to save his life. Those must’ve been some painful games for my family to watch. But I got better, a lot better, actually, in just a couple years. In middle school I had a few pretty stellar games that made me feel like I was freakin’ Kobe or something. Of course I was playing in leagues with kids that were mostly average. Nonetheless, those experiences instilled in me a lasting passion for the game. I quickly became a basketball junkie, and had dreams of going pro.
My game steadily developed over the next couple years. But when I was a sophomore in high school, I got kicked off the team because I got too drunk at a New Years Eve party and was blacked out when the cops showed up. I got a Minor in Possession charge, along with a few dozen other kids. Just a few days prior to that, I had finally caught the coaches’ eye, and he put me on the Junior Varsity Squad. When I got called into the assistant principles’ office and he broke the news that I would not be allowed to play for the rest of the season, I started sobbing uncontrollably. I’d never been more devastated in my life; basketball was everything to me. Eventually I got over it, and picked myself up. I continued to play the next year, but never could get back into the coaches’ good graces after that setback. I grew disillusioned with the favoritism and petty politics. I kept busting my ass to prove myself and make up for my mistake, but to no avail. I made the difficult decision to quit the team before the beginning of my senior season. By that time I realized I would never go pro. Still, I was a decent ball player; probably could’ve played NAIA or Division II somewhere. Letting it all go was gut wrenching.
I then rebelled against the jock my peers perceived me as, and indulged my creative side—something I’d intentionally kept dormant for a long time. I started to perform the poetry I had been secretly writing for years but had been too afraid to share with anyone. People told me I was really good, and encouraged me to keep going. It gave me an outlet to deal with all the frustration and angst of my adolescence. It was truly a saving grace. Since high school, I got addicted to tattoos, did a lot of drugs, had a few ill-advised relationships, worked full-time in child-care, education, music production, animal welfare, community organizing, and somehow while juggling all that I managed to graduate college summa cum laude. I’m damn proud of myself for that.
That’s enough with my life history though. If you’ve been gracious enough to read this, I bore you with the chronology not to solicit your pity or praise, but only for the sake of context. Much of who we are is the sum of our experiences. Context is key.
Today I turned 25. And yes, it actually does feel different, for once. I’m halfway through the supposed “best years of my life.” This is the decade where you’re supposed to make all the best memories, have the crazy experiences, travel all the places, meet all the interesting people, have lots of sex and go to all the parties, explore your passions and then settle into some sort of career, etc. etc…
I’ve done some of those things I suppose, but haven’t followed the trajectory of most twenty-somethings. I’ve been told I’m an old soul, and I admit, it already feels like 25 happened a long time ago. I’ve been on this beautiful, confusing, wretched Earth for a quarter of a century now, and that’s enough time for me to realize I don’t want to participate in the rat race that is imposed on most humans in our society. Today, I miraculously find myself literally living in the mountains with wolves. In doing so, I can say for the first time that I’ve fulfilled one of those many childhood dreams—something few people can claim. Yet, as I recount all those pipedreams and visions of grandeur, I realize that I am not at all who I envisioned I’d be. This isn’t a bad thing, and it may seem like an obvious conclusion. You may think, “well, of course people don’t usually end up actually doing what they wanted to do as children.” And you’re correct. But this is less of a commentary on dreams deferred as it is a reflection on how we are shaped as humans through space and time.
I like to think that I am a naturally driven, determined individual who has overcome much adversity to reach my goals. While that’s certainly true to an extent, much of who I am—my accomplishments, passions, skills, ideology, and even my sense of identity—is intimately bound up with the lives of other people, too. I’m not just talking about how your parents and family raise you and influence your worldview; but rather the intricate web of events and decisions, within which each of us is entangled, that impinge on one’s sense of self.
I was a very shy, clumsy kid. I liked books and videogames, and had no predilection for sports or most things that boys were supposed to like. But because of the social pressures and stigma that came with not being a jock, I gave it a try. I never would’ve become sensitive to the plight of working-class Americans and the poor had my parents not been afflicted by cancer, and some of my family not been subject to a broken and exclusionary healthcare system that lags behind the rest of the first world. I never would’ve pursued poetry, creative writing, or any scholastic endeavors had my teachers and peers not given me encouragement and affirmation. And never in a million years would I have thought I’d become a political organizer and help lead mass demonstrations against social injustice without the confidence instilled in me by my mentors and comrades. There were so many factors in my environment, both good and bad, occurring below the level of conscious awareness that subtlety helped guide me towards these things. As I think critically about who I am and how I got here, I am reminded of the pioneering theories of the social psychologist and pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead, the father of the symbolic interactionist school of thought. You probably learned about him in broad strokes if you took a psych or soc. 101 class in college.
The crux of Mead’s theory is based on the idea that the self is both a social and a cognitive entity. We normally speak of “the self” by referring only to the individual human organism, discussing it in isolated terms or as distinctly separate from other people and the environment. But the self is in fact, as Mead argues, a profoundly social phenomenon. Although existentially speaking each individual self does have its own discrete identity, the self must nevertheless be viewed in the context of the environment in which it is embedded. This dynamic is explained by the concept of the “I” and the “Me.” The “I” refers to the actions of the individual that are self-initiated or initiated in response to others. Mead emphasizes the ‘I’ as a source of spontaneity and creativity; its actions, although they may only differ marginally from previous ones, are each entirely unique and separate. For example, you may walk your dog or go on a morning run as part of your daily routine. But even if you take the same routes at the same times of day, your actions or your responses to the surrounding environment are never exactly identical to the actions you may have had yesterday. The way you may react to a passerby, how you regulate your pace with that of your dog, or how you choose to navigate the uneven terrain of the sidewalk—these acts may ostensibly be very similar to how you have done them in the past, but they are certainly not identically the same. In this way, the ‘I’ provides the individual with a sense of freedom; it is a source of non-reflective novelty. There are countless other examples, ranging from relatively minor social acts such as talking with a friend, playing a game of basketball, going to the grocery store, to somewhat more dramatic things like a job interview, performing poetry, attending a church service, going to a concert, or even robbing a bank—the point being that social acts are ubiquitous. In contrast, the “Me” is a type of cognitive object that can only be known retrospectively or upon reflection. Once the spontaneous actions of the “I” have been reflected upon and understood, they are incorporated into the self or the “Me.” In other words, the “I” only exists in the present moment, and once those new and novel acts have transpired, they become part of the “Me” which can be seen as a constantly evolving collection of “I”s in a sense. The “Me” accounts for our habitual action and our own subjective sense of self.
Understanding the “Me” and the “I” relationship that composes our sense of self is only half of the equation however, for “the individual, according to Mead, cannot reason or enter into reflective, creative thinking at all apart from the generalized other.” This idea of a “the generalized other,” or simply “the other” can basically be defined as a larger social group or community (i.e. “objects”) whose attitudes (culture, values, norms, mores, etc.) influence our behavior as individuals. Although we normalize our relationship with the generalized other to the point that we are not usually aware of its effect on us, it is present in all of our social interactions. All of our actions are informed by other individual people we come in contact with in our daily lives; these individual perspectives are incorporated into social groups, and those groups or communities take on certain perspectives that in turn influence our individual behavior (see figure 1 above). In doing this we effectively take the perspective or attitude of the other, what Mead calls “role-taking.” We are constantly in a process of social adjustment by anticipating how others will perceive and react to our actions and vice versa. We are perpetually engaged in a sort of human chess game, with the board being society itself.
- We imagine how others see us
- We imagine how others are judging us
- We react accordingly
Finally, in order to fully grasp Mead’s model it is crucial to understand that there is no sequential progression from the formation of the self to the realization of the generalized other; we are not first aware of ourselves and then, at a later point in time, aware of others. Our conception of the self and our awareness of the generalized other occur simultaneously. Neither can exist without the other. This is what Mead means by saying that “there can be no separate self apart from others. Self-awareness presupposes an other.”
That jargon filled foray into theories of reality and metaphysics was a large digression, and for that I apologize. But it was only to lend some credibility and provide context for the idea I’m driving at; that the human being, or any organism for that matter, does not develop in a vacuum. This is a simple fact, but one often forgotten. It riffs off the age-old debate of nature versus nurture, of the individual and society, and agency against structure. All of these, however, are false dichotomies. It is not a question of one against the other, but of how the individual is influenced by social structures and in turn plays a role in shaping those very same social institutions. It is this constant, never-ending interaction or back and forth between social agents and society that is the fabric of our shared reality.
Thus, the quintessentially American ideals of “rugged individualism” and “the self-made man” and “picking yourself up by your bootstraps” are not only damaging to ones psyche and sense of self-worth, but they are plainly wrong. No one is an island. We are each a complex tapestry of other people, ideas, and influences that inform who we are and what we do. This is not to say that we are all automatons or societal zombies that are given inputs in some Orwellian fashion that we then predictably act out to completion (although perhaps that metaphor hits too close to home considering the times). We still possess creativity and new, enticing, brilliant thoughts, but such thoughts occur to us while we are embedded in our respective environments. Again, in contrast, the actions and choices we make as individuals have a reverberating effect throughout society and the universe on quite literally everything, but especially those people, and animals, that are close to us.
No, I’m not an NBA player, or a renowned poet, or a music producer, or even an academic. Actually, I’ve failed time and time again at most of those endeavors. But I have also done some amazing things in the past 25 years that I am extremely proud of. I have loved, I have lost, and I have overcome. I have made difficult choices that will forever change how I see the world and how this world sees me. I am an individual. But I am also my class, skin color, gender, neighborhood, schools and nation. I am unique and unlike any other person. I am also only an amalgam of my parents, family, friends, lovers, partners, teachers, teammates, peers…
I am simultaneously a product of my environment and a producer of my environment.
I am just another wayward millennial, being violently tossed about like a tiny life raft in a tempest of socioeconomic forces that are completely abstract and intangible, yet constrain my choices every day and truncate my future. Did I mention that the life raft was thrown overboard from the U.S.S. Baby Boomer? A titanic that inadvertently veered off course and sank upon hitting a glacier of austerity and trickle-down economics, all whilst the crew was too distracted by the joys of being debt free, home-ownership, and livable wages.
I digress again.
I have been told my whole life that I am a leader, that I have talent and a special way with both people and animals. People have told me that I have more empathy than most. All of their praise and admiration is juxtaposed with my crippling sense of self-doubt, depression, and hopelessness. I am still trying to figure out how to cope with the expectations of others, and take ownership of these gifts I am told I possess but have never been able to see within myself. If we’re sticking with the symbolic interactionist approach, then I am only attempting to react accordingly to how I think others perceive me. And I’m fortunate that “the other” perceives me as a pretty good person, I think? At 25 years, I am not at all who I thought I’d be, but I love who I’ve become. I am desperately flawed, but I am beautiful.
I am beautiful because there were so many others that cared about me enough to tell me to keep practicing my jumpshot and my handle, to keep writing, to keep performing, to keep studying, to keep organizing, and to keep fighting the good fight. I am successful because people loved me enough to say, “you’re better than this.” Without them, there would be no Austin Hoffman. Birthdays are great and all, but instead of celebrating myself, I’d rather celebrate all of the incredible people that helped make me who I am. And it’s very likely that if you cared enough to read this long, rambling, impromptu essay, that you are one of those people I owe so much of myself to.
So thanks, friend.
“I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Miller, David L. George Herbert Mead: Self, Language, and the World. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.
Images from Association of Consumer Research; Communication Theory Blog