When you boil it down, the “college experience” is all about identity. “Who am I?” “What defines me?”
Questions like these pulse through the hearts and heads of every would-be college graduate as they press pen-to-paper on litigating registration forms that demand life-sentences be handed down for un-tried talents and interests. Before the start of their first class, and with no “real-world” experience to inform their decisions, the imaginations of 18-year old freshman everywhere conjure up images of their idealized selves and slam down their gavels in judgment on their futures.
BAM! I’ll be a teacher! BAM! I’ll be an engineer. BAM! I’ll be a doctor, a lawyer,a politician.
You can set your trajectory for life-long happiness, meaning and fulfillment by simply answering a single question: “What is your major?” Who knew there was so much power in one little question? Many students will answer this question 2, 3, 4, or 10 times during their college career (before panicking and desperately parlaying their kaleidescope of classes into a General Studies degree, also known as the “I’ve Studied Too Much of Everything to Know Much About Anything” degree). Why? Because they don’t know what they want to do? I don’t think so. They have an identity crisis.
They don’t know who they are.
“If I were just a little more like this or that…a little better looking…a little smarter…a little thinner…a little taller, then people would notice me. “If I made this much money…had such-and-such title…drove this-or-that car…wore those kind of clothes, then I would be respected. If I were a little more athletic…a little more spiritual…a little more popular, then I would be somebody.
Somebody. What a powerful concept. Nobody wants to be anybody. Everybody wants to be somebody. We all want to matter!
When these desires collide with years of uncritically imbibed images and messages from contemporary pop culture, we all form in our minds an “alter-ego” — an idealized version of ourselves that, if achieved, holds the potential to meet our deepest longings. Only majors keep changing. Why? Because what we want to do so often hinges on the idealized version of who we want to be, and that version is always changing. Chuck Poluhniuk brilliantly attacks this shallow, culturally conditioned identity when describing the purpose behind the spontaneous bare-knuckle fight clubs that occupy much of the attention in his famous book Fight Club. In an interview with Paste Magazine, he takes aim at what he calls “identity-in-the-moment”
“I think people need a consensual forum in which to express themselves and to exhaust their pent up anxiety, and also to test themselves and kind of destroy their identity-of-the-moment, so that they can move on to a better, stronger identity.”
Is that not what college promises? An environment in which we divorce ourselves from the superficial identity-in-the-moment in order to move on to a more secure identity? One that promises that we can be somebody? The only problem is that the idealized is never realized. All of us have built, and continue to build alter-egos (sometimes unwittingly). And they need to die. While Chuck gives us a brilliant diagnoses of the problem — a universal, human longing to destroy these “identities-in-the-moment” for a “better, stronger identity” — he fails to offer us a solution.
Jesus doesn’t leave us hanging.
The gospel demands we confess that we have all sinned by trusting in the creation instead of our Creator for identity-formation, and to turn toward and trust in the God who grants us the security, satisfaction, and salvation our hearts long for through his Son, Jesus Christ. Augustine of Hippo, having spent much of his early life chasing the desires of his heart in the things of the world, articulates this gospel truth so well in a famous excerpt from one of his prayers:
“My heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”