The Riggs Blog
Erikson Institute Media Prize
Erik Erikson famously wrote about identity. He indicated that a central negotiation required developing an increasing congruence between your views of yourself and the views others have of you. Learning to ‘see yourself as others see you’, as the poet Robert Burns put it, is a major developmental achievement not easily accomplished. A recognizable and accepted identity allows us to live more freely in the social world.
The three writers receiving this year’s Erikson Institute Award illuminated the relationship between this task and mental health. David Finkel, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, discussed his experience with soldiers fighting in Iraq – and living with their post-traumatic stress on their return to America. Compelled by his discipline to keep his own feelings at bay, Finkel was nonetheless moved by the horror of war and its aftermath in the individual and family lives of these veterans. Presenting their vivid stories to the packed audience at Riggs powerfully conveyed what these men and women bear on our behalf – and how stressful it is for any of us to look directly at their roles, begin to recognize what they do for us, and tolerate what we’ve done to them.
Scott Stossel, the editor of The Atlantic, writes about his role as an anxious patient, taking the audience powerfully into the experience, the science and the treatment of anxiety. Stossel’s self-effacing and brilliant humor about himself left the audience gasping, as they began to link their own lives to the unrelenting stress embedded in social anxiety. We are all patients in our recognition of our inevitable anxiety about living in the social world.
Andrew Solomon deepened these earlier presentations through his own study of identity. His epigrammatic story of himself as a gay child going to the shoe store with his brother and mother and asking for a pink balloon captured the dilemma. Struggling with his difference, his mother insisted that his favorite color was blue! Now as an adult, Solomon tells us, his favorite color IS blue – but “I am still gay”! This identity was successfully negotiated.
Erikson tells us that we first begin negotiating our identity in the family, then with society. When we can’t negotiate our acceptance in our family because our differences are too great for our parents to see us as part of themselves (e.g., if we are gay, deaf, schizophrenic, hyper-anxious, traumatized, transsexual), we may end up with symptoms of mental illness (e.g., anxiety, rage, sadness, and despair). Our next effort is to go laterally, to peers who are like ourselves. If successful, we can discover a group, a movement. We are no longer alone and can have political power to negotiate our identities with the rest of society. When that fails, we need heroes with clear and powerful voices that rise above the crowd, illuminate our stories and help us to be heard and recognized. This year’s Erikson Institute prize winners, David Finkel, Scott Stossel and Andrew Solomon, are such heroes.
To view the full presentations please visit the conference presentations section of our Resource Center.