The first time I knew something was wrong was at the end of law school. It was the final examination before graduation and I walked by two people in conversation outside of the examination hall. The one said to the other: I guess we’ll have to give up all our hobbies now we’re entering the real world.
I was haunted by this statement for months. I would think about it every night and every day. What was this real world that they were talking about? Why did it involve giving up parts of the self, the fundamental bases for who people really were? It didn’t make sense that “reality” meant to “give up”. The reality seemed to be what they were leaving behind.
There are many parts of the self. The imperative of modern society seems to be to give up the “unproductive” parts: creativity, childishness and play. Most of my law school acquaintances upon graduation gave up on making music, writing poetry, drawing and painting. These were childish pursuits. They were also fundamental expressions of their own unique individuality.
In giving up such pursuits, they were giving up on ever having their own unique voice. A voice capable of dissent and independence: the two fundamental characteristics of adulthood. Instead of growing up, they were actually losing the very things that they needed to mature out of the child-like reliance on other people’s opinions. This became very clear to me a few years later, when a law graduate told me I had Peter Pan syndrome, the inability to grow up, because I wanted to write a novel. Because apparently children write novels.
Underlying all of this is the idea that we can run away from ourselves and become the person others want us to be. Not only is this a false belief, it’s also dangerous. We cannot run away from ourselves, the only result is mental illness. We cannot win a war against ourselves, the only result is surrender. When the battlefield clears, the only thing left behind are a handful of self-inflicted wounds.
Instead of giving up on parts of ourselves, we should accept the entirety of who we are. This is not as easy as it first sounds. Hollywood likes to say that we should accept ourselves, that difference is okay: but these are surface platitudes in comparison to the actual work involved in doing so.
In the 2017 hit movie, The Greatest Showman, about a circus troupe of outsider characters, the chorus song declares: “I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.”
But showing ourselves for who we are: our identity, our personality and our interests is only part of the story. The true story is inside the self. To accept ourselves, we have to accept the things we like and dislike about ourselves, our faults and flaws, weaknesses and shames. It is not enough to accept that we are different, it is about a full integration of every part of ourselves into a singular authentic whole.
When I was in law school, multiple people told me that writing was a complete waste of my time. When I spoke of having principles, I was told “good luck paying the bills with your principles”. When I spoke of having compassion I was told “learn how the real world works”. When I spoke about the horrors of war, I was told “war is inevitable, don’t be naive”.
For years, I tried to run away from myself. I tried to stop writing and stop caring about the things that occupied my mind. I intentionally aimed to be anti-intellectual, to drink and party like everyone else my age. I tried to disown my creative self and fit into the mold that that environment was forcing me to become: a detached, cynical, robotic person incapable of independent expression or thought.
My creative pursuits were devalued in part because I wasn’t very good. I had so much to learn, and learning involved failure and judgment. But they were also devalued as an end in themselves, as if practicing something was shameful.
The end result of creativity, however, was valued. The people I knew wanted the art without the artist, the music without the musician and the dancer without the dance moves. They wanted to benefit from every aspect of culture while talking down to anyone who dared consider doing anything of the sort after the age of eighteen.
I learned to value myself the hard way: by keeping an eye out for the things that made my heart sing and by chasing those things, by valuing process over outcome and by ignoring the modern belief that resume equals self worth. Instead of running from my creative side, I let it take me where it wanted to go, and so I met beautiful people who inspired me, and I soon came to inspire others.
After years of work, my writing improved, to the point where I could make a sentence sing the note I wanted it to sing. I became good. And so I could read something I wrote to a crowded room of law graduates and get nothing but praise thereafter. There is an integration here, where internal self acceptance leads to external praise. The mistake is thinking it will ever work the other way round.
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