Is this where individuality ceases,
or does it exist beyond?
I just returned from visiting one of my three longest BFFs in Arizona. Jan and I have known each other 46 years, since we were 18. Four years ago, I wrote a personal essay about Jan (a female Sky King!) and I’ve been working on revisions before posting it on my website. Last month in writing group, my friend Cathy asked a challenging question.
“What does Jan really mean to you?”
Although the answer seemed obvious, I was inarticulate in reply. The question haunted me, and like most excellent questions, it forced me to dig deeper into the meaning behind this friendship and other relationships as well.
I was aware of the question during my four-day visit—the longest time Jan and I have spent together since we both lived in Huntsville, Alabama. Since 1968, we have lived across the country and even across the world from each other. But the answer to Cathy’s question came easily after being with Jan for just one day—honesty, trust, unconditional love. And the fact that Jan was a witness to a time of my life that is long past. Jan and I have both lived many, many lifetimes over the last 46 years—but we validate each other for the girls we were then—as well as the women we have become. This kind of acceptance is critical to a healthy sense of identity.
As humans, we are wired from birth to look to others for nurturing and approval. To see ourselves mirrored back in the smiles and eyes of our caretakers. We are inherently programmed to seek relationships and acceptance from others. Throughout life others include teachers, friends, lovers, mates, colleagues, bosses, children, grandchildren. The constant on the continuum is friends.
A few weeks ago I went to see a remarkable, award-winning documentary being screened in small venues across the United States. Somewhere Between is about four adolescent girls adopted from China and raised in four very different families and cities in the United States. With sensitivity and grace, Somewhere Between profiles the deeply moving journeys of Ann, Haley, Jenna, and Fang as they meet and bond with other adoptees around the world, travel back to China to seek out biological family and reconnect with the culture, and help other orphaned girls still left behind. All in an attempt to sort out their complex identities and answer the universal existential question, “Who am I?”
But to classify Somewhere Between as simply about the unique experience of adolescent female Chinese adoptees would be to do it a disservice. The film also explores issues of race, gender, and the developmental life stage of adolescence—which is characterized by concern with how one appears to others, the driving need to be like and accepted by their peers, and a need for belonging. Successful navigation of this stage of self-discovery leads to a strong sense of identity.
And yet, the quest for identify doesn’t end at adolescence. From infancy to advanced age, we never outgrow our need for belonging, our quest for self, and our search for the meaning of our lives. We all share a need for uniqueness and identification with others. We all long for a common bond—be it DNA or experience. We reach out to family, and friends—to find a witness that we existed and mattered. And in life, as in the documentary there are questions that remain unanswered—or “be careful what we ask for” answers.
Most importantly, we all need to believe we are special enough to be accepted and loved for who we are. What does Jan really mean to me? In the end, our families help us understand where we came from, but our friends help us know who we are.
***In Somewhere Between, Linda Goldstein Knowlton has created a beautiful gift for her adopted daughter, Ruby. She has also given a priceless gift to the four girls in the documentary—all the lives those girls touched on their personal journeys—and all others touched by the film. On Wednesday, January 30, Somewhere Between returns to Chicago and will be shown at the Beverly Art’s Center. For future screenings in other cities, please check out their website.
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