I was 24 when I decided to go back to school to study Psychology. I said goodbye to my cabin crew job at Ethiopian Airlines, engaged in some soul searching for some months after my resignation, and in the process, I learned something about myself. My heart has always inclined toward understanding about the human psychology, then why has it never occurred to me to pursue the field as a profession? I am not one to make swift decisions, but thanks to registration deadlines, one afternoon, I found myself in the compound of Addis Ababa University (AAU) to submit my application forms. Psychology and I made an instant connection or as I sometimes tell my friends, it was love at first sight. As the semesters and years unfolded, my love and passion never faded, they only deepened. If you had ever encountered a magnificent person in your later years in life and said to them, “Where have you been all my life”? then you probably understand what I am talking about.
But I am not here to discuss my love affair with Psychology, perhaps some other time. I am here to share with you about a certain theorist that left some sort of imprint in my life. If you have taken at least one introductory psychology class, then chances are, you have heard the name Erik Erikson. Having been scorched by the psychological agony that comes with identity crisis, this man has a lot to say about the topic. In fact, it is believed that the oft-used term, identity crisis, is traced back to Erikson’s work. Unlike Freud, Erikson’s theory does not begin and end in the child’s formative years, it stretches all the way to old age. His theory posited that throughout our lives, from cradle to grave, our lives are punctuated with eight different crises. He suggested that how we resolve a particular crisis will determine not only the structure of our personalities, but also how we handle the next crises that is awaiting around the horizon. As an example, let me go back to the identity crises that most likely befall adolescents, but one that tends to reappear at different stages of our lives. According to Erikson, the teenage years are marked by different questions related to identity.
Questions revolving around one’s values, worldviews, religious and political beliefs, interests, and hobbies are not uncommon and rightly so. This tension, however uncomfortable, can lead the teenager to stretch her wings and explore new territories. Fast forward, when a person reaches old age, there is yet another crisis that demands to be reckoned with. This crisis is referred to as “Ego Integrity versus Despair” — one that I wish to focus on. If you assume that the old age is a stage of life in which it is only marked by physical ailments, but free from psychological ache, then you are mistaken. With the realization that the end is nearing, older people are confronted with the task of life revision. They wonder if the life they had led is the life that they had envisioned. They might ask themselves if they had been true to their values, dreams, and responsibilities. In short, I suppose the big question that they might seek answers to is: Did my life matter?
I distinctly remember the moment I learned about this particular stage and saying to myself, “How sad is it to reach one’s end of life to engage in such reflection?” This question never departed me. After I completed both my BA and MA simultaneously, I became a lecturer at AAU. However, my thirst to learn more about mental health specifically and human behavior in general were not fully satiated. Enter PhD. The desire to do my PhD sparked. From where? I don’t’ know. But this desire did not arrive alone, like any dream that is worthwhile, it came with fear, feelings of inadequacy, and a bit of mockery – who do you think you are? And so, the tug of war between my dream and my fear began. The more I tended to my dream by looking at universities in the US, the more my fear grew. The more I heeded my fear and deserted my dream, the more I became restless. In one of her interviews, author Elizabeth Gilbert said something that resonates with the turmoil that I was experiencing during this moment, “A really wise teacher in India told me years ago that the talent you have and do not use becomes a burden on your life.” I became burdened.
Yes, I was standing in front of my students several days a week to teach about gender, human sexuality, and organizational psychology with a great deal of enthusiasm that I did not know I had, but simultaneously, I was also torn between these two sets of desires — comfort and stability and unfamiliarity and adventure. Relationship expert, Esther Perel, discusses these opposing human needs in one of her TED talks. In her view, we humans seek permanence and safety to the degree that we also need mystery and novelty. The person who is able to strike a good balance between these needs is rewarded with a well-rounded life. Coming back to my case, the fear of course never subsided, but I proceeded with my application process. I am now composing this piece of writing just a week after my doctoral graduation. So, what accounted for my overcoming? It could be many things, but one thing I can speak with certainty is that I just did not want to become that woman who reached the end of her life and wondered, “If only, I never allowed my fear to take away my dream.”