“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
― Maya Angelou, Letter to My Daughter
We have all wondered, aloud…or silently to ourselves, what other people really think about us. Who do they think we are outside of the impressions we try to make? What is their measure of us beyond the polite expressions they demonstrate in our presence? These are a few of the questions that arise in the course of our conscious or subconscious reflections on the impact we are having in the world around us, and, more specifically, in the various relationships that define who we are in our world.
There are various factors that contribute to how we are seen by others. These include the immediately observable presentations of our lives such as our gender, our ethnicity, our physical attributes, and of course…the props which demonstrate our social and economic status or lack thereof. Not as immediately observable at times, but just as significant to some, are the facts about our genealogy and upbringing. Some people are interested to know, for example, if we “come from money”? They also want to know how much education we have had …and from where? And then there is, of course, the old adage about who we surround ourselves with. “Show me your company” it is said and we will tell you “who you are”.
Many are the challenges that we must overcome in our effort to navigate our way through the course of this life with its many twists and turns, not to mention its hills and valleys. These are exacerbated when the way we look and the other facts of our lives don’t add up to meet the various expectations of others. Be assured, there is nothing unique about our circumstance in this regard. Many remarkable persons…from Jesus of Nazareth to Bob Marley of Jamaica…have had to contend with these challenges.
Of Jesus it was asked: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And… “Isn’t he the carpenter…the son of Joseph and Mary? Don’t we know his brothers…? Who does he think he is?” The Hon Robert Nesta Marley, early on in his work, had to overcome the indignities implicit in being referred to as “that dirty rasta boy from Trench Town…”. Like so many others with aspirations similar to his, he was told to “get a real job”. The attitudes that load these facts led the Carpenter from Nazareth to give voice to the well known piece of wisdom that declares:
“A prophet is without honor/respect in his own country”.
Bob Marley speaks with an unmistakable forcefulness with regard to the elevation of one’s essential self. He leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind about the need to establish one’s own template for living one’s life when he declares:
“We refuse to be what you wanted us to be… We are what we are, and that’s the way it’s going to be…”
Some of us are determined not just to rise above some of the the debilitating circumstances in which we find ourselves; in fact we want to speak to and about those situations in ways that we hope would change them for the better. In doing so we can expect to find disparagement even from those who are themselves from the same or similar circumstances. Such persons can’t help but acknowledge the truth of our aspirational statements, but they find themselves in the unenviable dilemma of harboring some very negative feelings about those whose declarations stir in them the necessity to change.
This dilemma is an expression of the very real tension that exists between the embrace of our familiar circumstances, and the challenge to pursue something different. It brings to the fore the edgy coexistence between the old perceptions we hold on to, and new visions of being. This dynamic tension generates in each of us a nudging to give preeminence to the desire for something different …and better. It creates a longing for a life renewed in a way that treats change as a necessary evolutionary ally.
There are dueling existential pieces in each of us. There is that part of us that has become comfortable with things as they are, it does not want to be bothered. It is ok, even if not satisfied, with status quo. It is hard to ignore the beckoning from within and without to reach for something new and better, but that call requires work that many are ill-prepared for. Someone or something reaches deep within us and spurs us to get moving, to end our complacency… and our initial reactions to being “spurred” are not always nice.
We must all contend with the branding dynamic of our social environment, it happens whether we like it or not. There is, however, a potentially greater peril than that which is a function of how we are perceived by others. Even more disconcerting at times than the way others see us and talk about us, is the way we see and think about ourselves. For this very reason, if no other, the voice in our own heads is often louder than the disparagement of the crowd. We may often have to contemplate the external challenges to our sense of self, but the noise from our own internal reality must at some point become the focus of our deeper reflection.
LIVING IN THE MOLD
Life has many lessons to impart to us daily. The great challenge for us as Life’s students is in identifying what nugget to extract from each experience and applying it appropriately in our lives. We are all prone to getting bogged down in the potential quick-sand of life’s sometimes treacherous path. We all stumble along the way. That is because our path does not always present itself as a classroom, and so wisdom dictates that we hone our abilities of discernment through developing habits of meaningful reflection. Without these habits we may become weighed down with guilt and anger and the consequent frustrations of an existence woefully lacking a dynamic perspective. And so, to our great angst, we become what we have done…and what has been done to us.
In the face of the challenge to live in a prescribed mold, let us call to mind the great examples of individuals whose stories inspire us because they refused to. These individuals demonstrate to us the truth that the vilest sinner can become a saint. The persecutor can become an advocate for those he once victimized. The addict can rise above the afflictions of addiction and be a witness to what it can mean to live an empowered life. We have seen the abused overcome the dehumanizing stigma of being a victim and become examples of what taking charge of one’s destiny can produce in one’s world. We have seen the slave become a liberator. These are a few examples of what is possible when we refuse to be defined by the gross violations of our experience.
Saint Augustine who went on to become one of the most important theologians of the early church, had his own challenges to overcome before he could attain to the levels of philosophical prominence he achieved. Exhausted by his own moral, spiritual, and intellectual struggles, he eventually cried out: “And Thou, O Lord, how long? How long? Is it to be tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour put an end to shame?”
Oprah Winfrey, the most wealthy woman of color in the world, rose above the life-inhibiting experiences she has so courageously shared with us to establishing, among other things, a school for young black girls in South Africa that seeks to expand their horizons. Her life and example serves as an inspiration to all of us. She continues to grow, and she constantly reminds us that there are new heights to be achieved no matter how wonderful our achievements. In her regularly featured signature article “What I Know for Sure“, which she writes for O The Magazine, she recently noted the following:
“We have to make ourselves over daily, consistently, in order to keep moving forward. We are not meant to stagnate. If change is the one thing you can be sure of, the goal is to figure out how you can use that certainty to your advantage, to modify, transfigure, and transform your day to day being.”
Jesus of Nazareth asked his Heavenly Father to forgive his persecutors their moral/spiritual ignorance. His life remains an eternal symbol of grace with which we are all acquainted. We are constantly drawn to his example of empowered living, as he showed us how to resurrect our lives from the grips of oppression and crucifixion.
Nelson Mandela emerged from 28 years of imprisonment at the hands of the servants of Apartheid in South Africa to call for “truth and reconciliation” in a country torn asunder by a desperately hateful ideology.
These giants of moral and philosophical achievement will live forever through the lives they continue to lift up by their great examples.
We have the power, each one of us, to cast off the definitions by which our potentials are limited. We acknowledge that power in declaring our right to name ourselves and thus determine who we are and what we will become. The recognition of this right and this power ushers in a new reality for anyone so inclined. It begins the process of breaking the molds that sabotage our ability to live authentic lives. It makes us available to the empowering possibilities
of liberated living.
The responsibility to define who we are and what we will become is a sacred trust. It is the foundation on which we build the futures that beckon us away from the distresses of the imposed impotence of a mimicked existence. The authenticity of our being should never be determined by anyone else’s prescription, nor for that matter, anyone else’s proscription. The process of naming ourselves is an exercise in the kind of courage that takes for granted that we will make mistakes. Our imperfection however, should never be a deterrent to acting out our sense of who we are… Or what we want to become. Let us always keep in mind that we are works in progress. To the extent that perfection carries with it the connotation of being finished, it is a claim we cannot even pretend to make… None of us.
AUTHENTICITY AS DESTINY
Moving forward we must recognize and speak the truth about our experiences. By that I do not mean complain. I do not mean wallowing for attention in what I have called “the muck and disgraces” which are always there if we look honestly enough into all our experiences. Such activity in many instances becomes an end in itself. There is no denying the pain and grief that is a part of our lives, but if we are to heal we must find the wherewithal to identify their sources and effectively address them. Some people may gain notoriety from an overindulgence in self-pity, but it is ultimately an exercise in futility.
There are items of our lives that are sources of pain and shame. Some we are complicit in, and some we are victims of. Some we remain unclear as to what part exactly we may be accountable for. The path to authentic living helps to bring clarity where needed. Where necessary we must seek forgiveness… And we must also learn to forgive. A most empowering meditation in this regard is to be found in The Lord’s Prayer… “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. The absence of forgiveness as a vital part of our attempts to heal becomes a wall between us and the authenticity we seek. To leave the past behind and grant ourselves the power we need to move ahead, it is necessary to climb over that wall. This is how we gain the needed perspective our renewal demands… By acting to remove the barriers between us and our futures.
Taking charge of our lives is about being purposefully creative. We potentiate the process with acts through which we call ourselves to a spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual housecleaning. This requires us to truthfully unburden ourselves of those experiences that weigh us down in the miry clay of pain and regret. The objective is to rid ourselves of the hurt and guilt associated with bad experiences we have had, and or caused. This is absolutely necessary before we can embark on the journey of renewal.
As we continue this journey we must walk away from the psychological, spiritual, physical, and social instruments and actors that are complicit in the sordid episodes we want to turn away from. Talk is cheap. This is where the “rubber” of the commitments we make meets the “road” of our willingness to act out those commitments. This is where the demands of our renewal become real. It may mean new friends and associates. It may mean moving away from your familiar environment. It may require a new way of eating. New ways of thinking and acting and behaving are required for the renewal we seek. You may have to go back to school as you give up your old job in the club…or at the investment firm. The new you that you seek will need a new foundation from which to grow and develop.
Our personal journey to renewal demands that we commit ourselves to new habits. As humans we have come to think of ourselves as “creatures of habit”. Habit formation is a function of the repeated practice of the skills and behaviors we need in our improved selves. It is believed, and often said that, “practice makes perfect”. The remaking or redefining of our lives demands that we become new creatures through the renewal of our minds that come from the repeated practice of acts determined to speak with clarity about who we are and who we want to be. No longer must we be defined by the old habits, but by our new ways of seeing, and believing, and behaving.
“OUT OF THE HUTS OF HISTORY’S SHAME…”
A few years ago I sat with my wife in an audience at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, as Congressman John Lewis gave the Convocation Address to the thousands of incoming students and their families and friends gathered there to mark the start of their careers as college students. The Congressman is a great example of someone who refused to live in the mold prescribed by the prevailing socio-historical circumstances into which he was born. He had to overcome much in his own experience… And he did. The following is an excerpt from the biography published on his website:
“He was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940, outside of Troy, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools in Pike County, Alabama. As a young boy, he was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which he heard on radio broadcasts. In those pivotal moments, he made a decision to become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. Ever since then, he has remained at the vanguard of progressive social movements and the human rights struggle in the United States.
As a student at Fisk University, John Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1961, he volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which challenged segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life on those Rides many times by simply sitting in seats reserved for white patrons. He was also beaten severely by angry mobs and arrested by police for challenging the injustice of Jim Crow segregation in the South.”
I listened, overwhelmed by a substantial empathy, and I observed the rapt attention being paid to this man by an audience currently reflective of the American demographic landscape. His resounding message: “Never give up! Never give in!” And as I sat there in that audience listening to Congressman Lewis, the words of Dr Maya Angelou came to mind :
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Dr. Maya Angelou… Wow! Say it with me… WOW! A woman who “phenomenally” refused to be defined by adverse circumstances, the scars of which she carried in her own being. Even now she “rises” … and she lifts us with her to new heights of consciousness and being! I hear her wonderfully commanding and beautifully distinct voice in my head constantly. It speaks with a powerful eloquence that stirs in us a mixture of memory and emotion that cannot be ignored.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame … I rise!
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain … I rise!
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear … I rise!
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear … I rise!
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise! I rise! I rise!”
There is a life-proliferating quality to the work of Dr. Maya Angelou. Her literary offerings and the emotions they elicit plant themselves in our consciousness almost effortlessly, and they thrive there as if they have always been there… though unnoticed. In an act of cultural and spiritual intimacy she draws us to a most sacred place on our life-journey, and we experience a mating of ideas and ideals that leave us pregnant with the expectation of something greater for ourselves and the other selves connected to us. Her creative genius reaches deep within us and calls forth the memory of our sacred obligation to “be fruitful and multiply”. Hers is a call echoing from the Eden of our very beginnings. It is a call to new dreams, and new hopes, and a new vitality. She encourages us to revise and refine and redefine who we are and who we would be. In that respect Maya Angelou joins the Jesuses and the Kings and the Mandelas and the Oprahs and the Marleys, in engendering an ongoing work of renewal among us.
LIVING INTO A VIRTUOUS FECUNDITY
The redefinition of our lives that result from our work to create the destiny we determine to be fulfilling for us, brings into our experience of living the kind of abundance that we can only hope for in the absence of this definitive effort. That abundance results from the empowering clarity that we now possess as a result of new ways of looking at things. We discover new possibilities as we cultivate the ability to see things we were ignoring, to hear ideas to which we were once deaf, and to now apply ourselves with the kind of industriousness that Wisdom in her consummate omniscience dictates. Most meaningfully, our example serves as an indispensable guide on what is at times a profoundly difficult road through life. This work of Wisdom and Courage serves to establish lamps in the dark for fellow travelers on the journey to more abundant living.
This virtuous reproduction of ourselves and our lives will inevitably require new and improved templates of being. These new templates are molded through the persistence that a patient and determined willingness to pursue the destiny we have envisioned for our lives develops in us. In order to create the new templates we need it is necessary that we break out of the molds that limit our ability to grow. Complacency must no longer be tolerated as an ally. Fear must give way to courageous action. The existential malaise that saps our vitality must be addressed by proactive efforts to improve our health and well-being. The tendency to say “I can’t” must be replaced with a new enthusiasm that declares “I will!”.
By committing ourselves to growth, and by doing the work required by that commitment, we activate the process of change that fills us with a new dynamism. We move from promise to possibility, and from possibility to actualizing a more powerful sense of being. As agents of change we help motivate others, and thus we become prime movers in the perpetuation of that season for a redefinition of what it can mean to truly live.
Out of the old molds of being…
We can be models for a “newness of life” that inspires.