Our Town: The Graduate

"You have brains in your head! You have feet in your shoes! You can steer yourself any direction you choose!"

Graduation day has finally arrived and as the song goes “no more homework, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” It is a time of celebration for having successfully negotiated all those calculus, physics and English classes. The newly graduated put on cap and gown, receive the diploma, toss their caps into the air and go out for the traditional graduation dinner.

During graduation dinners there may be a conversation about what’s next. Whether the next step is college, graduate school or a job, the new graduate is typically filled with relief that the past is done with and turn towards the future with hope, optimism, curiosity and fear.

The Dr. Seuss classic “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” contains a wonderful commencement message for the young graduates that the future will be filled with triumph and tragedy put that things turn out well in the end.

This is largely true and why the graduation day rituals are so important. Education is geared toward learning practical skills and gives the student an orientation towards the culture and the world they live in. It is largely geared towards the external surface of the world.

But there is another deeply internal process has been taking place all during the school years and it works as follows. Our identities are formed in the home setting and based upon the way our parents behavior and our birth order. We may be an only child, the oldest sibling, a middle child, a twin, a triplet or may have been adopted. As children we are small and merely one among many and so we feel inferior, small and weak.

That by the sway is Alfred Adler’s theory of child development. Adler was one of the founding fathers of psychoanalysis and he gave us the concepts of inferiority complex, superiority complex and over compensation. As an example, an adopted child will often lack trust, an only child may become spoiled and lazy, the oldest sibling will be dethroned and the middle children will be ignored. All children wind up feeling rather small and insignificant.

We enter school with this embattled identity and we begin the process of overcompensation by converting our inferiority complex into superiority. Throughout schooling, all children embark on a journey to transcend their sense of inferiority and to prove to the world that they are superior, special and worth something. This is why those who were most severely ignored or neglected have a huge chip on their shoulder.

Eldrick Tont Woods was a shy stutterer and converted himself into an athlete that the world knows as Tiger. Richard Nixon grew up poor and filled with shame and became a scholar and later a president. l Bill Clinton’s natural father died before Bill was born and his mother put him in the care of his grandparents for a while and then she married an abusive alcoholic. And out of this mess Bill Clinton grew up to be a great musician and a Rhodes Scholar, studying at Oxford after Georgetown University.

After that he ran for office and became our president. These are three interesting cases of early childhood deprivation followed by overcompensation and great success. We use school not only to learn about the world but also to prove to the world that we are worth something.

But you will notice that these three stories all seemed to end badly. The end of Tiger Wood’s career has been marred by scandal, injury and drug abuse. Richard Nixon left office in shame and the Watergate scandal. Bill Clinton was also shamed and embarrassed by impeachment as he tried to talk his way out of the Monica Lewinski affair.

All three cases show that one may overcompensation for a lowly beginning but in the end the past seems to catch up to you. We call this the internal saboteur or the shadow of the past which has lain in wait all those years and like a monster from a horror movie jumps out to destroy you when you think you have finally escaped it.. As the saying goes “You may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with you.”Graduation day with the imprimatur of a degree is a wonderful thing indeed! As Dr. Seuss would say

“Oh the places you’ll go!
There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored
There are games to be won.”

And as you accumulate all those degrees, trophies, money, homes and other signs of success make sure you spend time appreciating the fact that it was you all along who succeeded in this way. Realize that when you arrive in a good place, you really do deserve all the applause you are hearing. It was you all along that was superior rather than inferior.


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