This week I am puzzling over whether I can find happiness working in a field that requires that I constantly make myself vulnerable by exposing my work and ideas to critique. Yet I wonder just as much if that vulnerability might be the only road to true satisfaction, wholeness, and belonging.
It seems I am always trying to stop myself from making real choices. By “real” I guess I mean free, unencumbered, and from the place of love and compassion. Of course, there are always limitations to our choices that come from the circumstances in which we live. No matter how much I approach life from freedom and divine compassion I cannot simply choose to be a professional figure skater (no matter how much I would truly truly love to). My age, athletic ability, budget, god-given inability to pull my leg off and stick it over my head all prohibit that choice from being available to me. This is the case for so many things, so why do I go through life creating more obstacles for myself when there are already so many?
As a historian I think a lot about narrative. In my dissertation, I am taking a collection of disparate primary sources: letters, newspaper articles, diaries, maps, reports, and turning them into the story of settling and colonizing Oregon. A lot of scholars have demonstrated that narratives are inherently skewed, embedded with power and always reinforcing power relations, even when the writers and readers of the narratives are not even aware of it. This is undoubtedly true, but it does nothing to reduce our absolute dependence on narratives and stories to live in the world, to create our identities, and to understand ourselves and others. So, we keep telling stories even though we know they are imperfect and sometimes dangerous.
What does this have to do with the way I relate to choices in my life? Well I’ll tell you. The main tool my unconscious and conscious mind uses to limit myself when it comes to choices is narrative. I have a narrative about why I cannot be a good academic, for example. It infects my thinking, circumscribing my assessments of the world around me, my interactions, my moods, and my work habits. When I finally think I have broken through that narrative another one begins to emerge. This one concedes that I have done OK in graduate school and so I am well-suited for some part of the job, but only the parts where I interact with people. The rest, it tells me, I am still hopeless at. I feel a strong sense of freedom when an old story has been vanquished and exposed as the rascal it is. But then, as my ego begins to construct new stories of limitation that sense fades. It’s really a constant struggle. These narratives are seriously strong little suckers! They are extremely good at convincing me not to try.
Because if I try and fail then the stories might be proven true. Which of course in reality does not even matter because I am already letting them control me as though they are true. But the fear is still enough to hold me back.
So how can I escape this cycle and really allow myself to choose based on what makes me happy instead of what the constellation of stories structuring my reality at a particular moment decides to allow?
That is a very good question.
I’m pretty sure the answer is to act with courage, to trust, and to let go. When I write these words I know they are true, and yet they are so difficult to carry out. Writing this post is a way to remind myself and to hopefully cultivate a sense of commitment to living my life according to these principles.
Many things inspire me to reach for the courageous life. Mary Oliver, who is the bomb, seemed to get this concept when she wrote the following words:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride, married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
–Mary Oliver (From her poem, “When Death Comes.”)
And Brene Brown gets it too. Take a look at this life-changing video.