When my adorable dog Willoughby wants something, he wants it. He doesn’t check, first, whether we want him to want it. He doesn’t wait to see if we’re okay with him wanting it. He doesn’t try to align his deepest desires with what he supposes that we may want him to want. He doesn’t try to guess what our vision of the perfect-Willoughby would want. He doesn’t worry that if he wants the thing, we won’t love him anymore. He just . . . wants it. This doesn’t mean he gets everything he wants, but he certainly doesn’t pretend to be not-Willoughby all the time. He just is Willoughby and Willoughby wants what he wants–especially if its edible.
We humans aren’t always quite that clever. Or maybe we’re too clever.
We humans do this weird thing where we suppress our actual desires.
Again, it’s probably best that we don’t actually take everything we want. After all, devouring two-and-a-half pounds of the kitchen garbage didn’t end up making Willoughby quite as happy as he thought it would.
But there’s a difference between self-control and self-supprression.
A bunch, if not most . . . if not all . . . of us do it–in some way or another, at one time or another. Some of us self-suppress consciously, some of us subconsciously.
It sounds something like this:
But what will this friend think?
Does that friend need me to be different?
Is it normal enough to feel this way?
Will this disappoint my family?
Will that friend feel let down?
Ask yourself . . .
. . . The things you say “yes” to in your day-to-day life . . . are they you things? Or are they that-friend things? Are they my-family things? Normal or expected things?
. . . If you felt 100% free from what your people have come to expect from you, would you still be doing or saying or choosing or pursuing the things you are?
. . . Do you sometimes catch yourself making a decision based on a hope to impress an important person in your life? Or not disappoint them? Even when deep in your gut you know you’re not being honest about what you want?
. . . Do you feel yourself pulled into dishonest yeses, because your person or your people need a version of you that’s not really you?
For some of us, I think this tendency is rooted in an unconscious belief that we are less important than others.
For some of us, I think it’s actually (or also) rooted in this quiet suspicion that we will lose people if we don’t live for them. That we will only be loved if we align our wants and decisions and priorities with what people in our lives would love to see us choose.
So 15-year-old kids turn into 40-year-olds in a career they wanted because their parents wanted them to want it only to discover they don’t actually want it.
And busy busy people cram even more things into their schedules only to realize that they still spend zero minutes each week on the things that actually spark passion inside them.
And you and I agree to be in positions where people are counting on us for something that we’re not admitting is bleeding us dry, and we can’t imagine backing out because that is not what those people want or need from us.
And the days turn into weeks, turn into months, turn into years.
And all the while, if Willoughby doesn’t want a bath, he doesn’t want a bath, and if he does want a bite of our steak, he does want a bite of our steak, and there is zero pressure in his mind to pretend he feels differently.
He just gets to be Willoughby.
What if you just let yourself be you?
Would life be different?
So how can you get more honest with yourself today? Whose life have you been living? What voices can you let go of today? What deep desire can you connect with today? How can you be truly you today?
Non-rational corners of the brain get little respect. We are supposed to be “smart” creatures, do what “makes sense,” “think carefully.” And yes to all that. And also yes to purposefully manufacturing feelings and emotions that access the more primitive corners of the brain and have nothing to do with logic and sensibility.
Here’s what I mean.
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last,” Zig Ziglar points out. “Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”
When we plan and think about how to do life day-to-day, we want to grow, stretch, learn, accomplish–and so we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the rationality-stuff, and forget to plan for our emotions.
We are emotional creatures. We do big, brave, beautiful things because we’re having deep feelings.
What gives you those deep feelings? What triggers them? Fuels them? Replenishes them when you’re running on empty?
Reading a good book? Singing along to the Les Misérables score? Discovering a new poet? Getting the biggest, tightest hug? Asking your heart how it’s doing and writing the answer in a journal? Volunteering to help people in need? Laying quietly for an hour by the lake? A phone call to your best friend? Reading a story that deals with death or loss or grief and purpose? Finding a good quote to live by? Gazing at photos of Mount Ida, visualizing yourself, hiking boots, backpack, all geared up, trekking the wilderness? Joining a crowd to dance, sing, cheer, laugh, or some years just seeing a bunch of smiling faces on Zoom? Holding the little hand of your sweet kiddo as they drift to sleep?
We call them “mountain top” experiences, and they change our lives, and then, when the feels wear off, and we’ve been feelingless for a good while, and we got all rational again, and we barely recognize our once-emotional-selves, we remember those episodes and call them “mountain top” experiences again but with a sort of disapproval this time, like we had fallen for something, like how silly to get so high on feelings. Or maybe like we’re just feeling insecure and a little lost deep down now, because we can’t find our way back up the mountain.
So get emotional on purpose.
What gives you those deep feelings?
commit to it,
obsess over it,
cry about it,
keep it sacred,
do it again,
do it again,
do it again.
Let’s not undervalue the truly life-changing impact of finding our feelings.
What emotions do you need today? And where could you get them? Go look, find, take them.
There is nothing silly or senseless or worthless about manufacturing vitality-giving emotions on purpose.
Approval feels really wonderful, so it’s hard not to fall back into living for approval after we’ve once found freedom.
When you find independence, you chase the things you’re genuinely interested in, the stuff you really believe in. And then that new version of life brings you new approval from new approvers. People that love you for who you are now. Only, those people are complicated and come with new pressures and expectations for you. And those people change. And so do you. So it’s easy to find yourself right back where you started: Not being true to your heart, walking the tightrope of your new tribe’s approval.
What would happen if you got out of your head? What would happen if you just hit refresh on that independence every couple of months. Mindfully said, “Hey, I don’t have to . . . [fill-in-the-blank].”
We are free. Freedom brings life, life brings community, and community–no matter how wonderful–can be a complicated thing for our codependent little hearts to navigate.
So here’s your reminder, whether you’re on round two or three or four or twelve of rediscovering yourself, reinventing yourself, letting yourself live your genuine life instead of the one expected–here’s your reminder to keep ignoring that loud, persistent longing to be “normal” or approved of–no matter who your current tribe is.
You are you.
P.S. You may just find that you have some true community–some fellow humans who don’t even have the expectations of you that you’re trying to live up to. Who just see you as you.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” ~ Neil Gaiman
The other day I sat down and wrote a schedule that would help me actually do all the things I want to do every day, every week. I did that a while ago, too. And before that. And again and again and again. And it HAS HELPED. Every time. But it has never “worked” impeccably. Schedules, to-do lists, planning sessions–they’ve never guaranteed lasting consistency in my life. I’ve had to keep trying again.
Like in meditation, where you keep wandering, so you keep gently redirecting your mind.
For years I saw the ebbs and flows of life as a weakness. And “weakness” meant BAD. I don’t really see it that way anymore.
Life comes in waves. In cycles. In “I’ve-got-this” weeks and “I-can’t-even” weeks. And I’m thinking, more and more, that . . . c’est la vie.
Imagine the alternative: Being ALWAYS ON. Going at the same pace through all of life. Never feeling the low times again. Never taking a break from your productivity. Never understanding the “struggle” that all your friends and family experience. Being perfectly consistent. I don’t think that’s how life works. In fact, I think the cycles help us self-regulate, and help us change with life’s seasons.
The cycles in life help us make little mini-course corrections–or sometimes not so mini. Sometimes my heart or my body or my subconscious says something like “Hey, too heavy on the socializing these days,” or “I think you might need to slow down,” or even “I think it’s time for something a little more meaningful.” And then for a while, I become a little more this and a little less that. For a season. Until it’s time to correct again.
In other words, it’s okay for life to be up and then down, back and then forth, busy and then slow, happy and then sad, productive and then relaxing. It’s okay that today-me and tomorrow-me and next-year me are each going to be a little different.
Let yourself not be always “on.”
Let yourself change. Let yourself throw caution to the wind today, stay in bed all day tomorrow, and then go conquer the world the next day.
In the context of that disclaimer, and only in the context of that disclaimer, I’d encourage you to try two little things every day. The mountain-top days and the valley-days. Two little things with big impact:
First, keep one centering ritual:
One thing that brings you back to who and where and why you are. Some days the ritual will open your eyes to exhaustion in yourself, and some days the ritual will open your eyes to an almost limitless energy. How important to know which days you need a break and which days you need to give it everything you’ve got! Some days the ritual will show you that you are at peace, and some days it will show you that you’re torn. Good! You know what you’re working with! It’s about slowing down and seeing you and your world.
Over the last several years I’ve learned that for me it’s a mixture of quiet time, meditation, and yoga. And if I can do it first thing in the morning, I will be so much more present that day. Not always more “happy” or “productive,” just more present in reality. Able to show up for my real life instead of wishing it away.
What is that centering ritual for you?
And second, keep one difficult ritual:
Being who we want to be every day, choosing our reaction to life’s roller coasters, takes strength. And not the strength to choose “positivity” every single time, or to choose “productivity” every single time. Just the strength and discipline to say, “Today, I think this is what I want or need,” and then to follow through. Don’t underestimate the power of doing one difficult thing–maybe even one “painful” thing–every single day. If you were able to do that tough thing–that thing you don’t “like” or that didn’t feel good . . . then when the consequential choices show up later in the day, the opportunities to be who you really want to be . . . you’ll remember that you are strong!
At times, for me, that has looked like really uncomfortable running training. Pushing myself past what I thought my limits were. Keeping up that pace even when it’s not “fun.” I’m not always a proponent of that, but it has had its incredibly effective place in my life as a tool for learning discipline. The correlation between the running-as-discipline and making-the-choices-I-really-want times of my life has been pretty shockingly close. Lately, it’s been wrapping up my morning shower with a blast of icy cold water and just standing under it for a while while I find my controlled, capable breath. It just proves to me first thing in the morning that today I can pick the uncomfortable option or make the tough decisions or do the scary things if I need to.
What is that difficult, strength-finding ritual for you?
Good luck, my friend, as you show up for your life and choose to be the Light you want to be in the world, every single day. And it’s okay that it will look different day to day. Just don’t lose YOU in all the waves.
~ namaste ~
P.S. And if you ever do lose you, just wake up the next morning, check in on your heart, and take a cold shower.
I am a world traveler. An explorer. An adventurer.
Salty wind on a gloomy Scottish coast, with an order of fish and chips. Diesel smell from the red double-decker buses.
Giant red Maple leaves painted on the airplanes, a little memory to remind me that I had technically been to Canada, even if it was more through. Little me still wants it to count.
The palpable rush of confidence and swagger as sheltered teen me navigated the Heartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and caught the MARTA, all by myself, to see my adopted family. Atlanta and its suburbs that, after a few trips, was my emotional stomping grounds, my “real home.”
Restaurants on piers in San Diego, with the loud sound of crashing waves. “Red and white,” a cryptic inside joke that out-of-place teen me and all my fellow travelers in San Deigo laughed and laughed at, though I never actually got it.
Homemade black-bean breakfast burritos at dawn on the road in Arizona with my big sister, and the jaw-dropping, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it massiveness of the Grand Canyon when I first walked up to its edge.
The carefully-choreographed nonchalance with which I’d swing my backpack over one shoulder (only once accidentally smacking a fellow traveler in the face with the cool maneuver). The “oh yeah, this is my every-day, I’ve got this” demeanor I adopted whenever I had traveling companions, just to prove that yes, I’m a seasoned world traveler at seventeen.
Traveling by greyhound bus. Telling people I traveled by greyhound bus. Cred.
A long, long, long flight to . . . Amsterdam? And then to Frankfurt, where I logged onto an internet kiosk to send a quick love-note and discovered that German keyboards switch the Y and the Z. Struggling to keep my eyelids open so as not to miss my connection to Africa.
And then there was Ethiopia. Addis Ababa. I could write and write and write. The collapsed, seat-belt-less back seat of the taxi with the door that would swing wide open around curves. Ululating funeral processions. Wedding feasts. The way Amharic speakers gasp and raise their eyebrows to denote that they’re still listening. The beautiful Ge’ez script that doubled as code for my secret love letters. Morning prayers over loud-speaker. Blue and white taxis with boys hanging out the door yelling their destinations, and chaotic traffic like you’ve never seen (though YouTubing “Meskel Square” may give you a sense). Outrunning a bull down an alleyway. Beautiful old cathedrals. Getting lost at dusk in a corner of the city I’d never seen. Key Wat. And the streets of Addis Ababa coming alive with runners at 5am.
And Uganda. Kawunga ne ebijanjalo for lunch every day. The dancing, the rhythm. The elephants and giraffes as I rode a massive bus from one corner of Uganda to another. The beautiful landscape. The “oh-yeah-this-is-normal” feel of wildfires in the hot Savannah. The warm, generous welcomes in remote villages from the poorest of people. The python I suddenly notice slithering through the grass two feet away. Jack Fruit fresh off the tree. Roaring waterfalls, rivers with hippos and crocodiles. The several-story shopping malls and glamorous houses that told me that I’d learned only a tiny little version of the truth about Africa.
A dreamlike week in Mezzegra on Lake Como in northern Italy. All the pizza, all the wine, and fresh food from the little shop on the corner, where the deli attendant didn’t wash hands after using them bare to wrap our raw chicken, but like in a this-is-normal way. All the little restaurants serving food fresh from their home gardens. Showing up at the local super market fifteen minutes before the hour, only to see the doors shut and someone explain that they weren’t busy so they went ahead and closed early. Beautiful mountains and towers and villages and trails. An intimate elopement at the Villa del Balbianello with just my adventure buddy, our photographer couple, and the reckless driver of our wooden boat. And gelato, of course. Il dolce far niente.
And most recently, a few years of flying or driving or taking a train or doing whatever it takes to get to any and every gorgeous piece of America (or Canada) we can–from Big Bend to Glacier to the Rockies to the Smokies to Zion. And a weekend wandering Santa Barbara, driving its mountain roads, splashing in its waves, eating authentic tacos, and wishing Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster really lived there.
That was me.
People still say I travel a lot. I guess I do, when we’re not hunkered down waiting out the coronavirus. But like . . . sort of traveling. I don’t fly on airplanes very much anymore, mostly shockingly long drives (think sixteen hours in one day), and pretty much just in the United States. But I didn’t mean to be a United-States-traveler, I meant to be a World-traveler.
When I left my home country for Africa, I discovered that a big portion of my heart belongs to exploring countries and cultures all around the world.
That just is me.
“But,” I haven’t left the country in five years. When I was twenty, I envisioned this World-traveler me flying off to a new land to explore at least once or twice a year. I knew how to, I learned all about it . . . this was what my life was going to be about, in a big way.
In the ten years since, I’ve flown across the ocean only once. Been to Italy and Canada. In ten years. Not what I envisioned. So . . . am I a World-traveler?
What is something like that for you? Something that is a huge part of daydream-you? Maybe a thing you used to experience, do a lot of, love, dream about, envision as one of the main threads in your life?
Maybe something you haven’t gotten to keep doing quite like you envisioned it?
Have you felt like you’ve had to give it up? Like you shouldn’t claim that title for yourself anymore, because it’s not accurate?
Maybe you used to be a runner, but not really anymore now that you’ve had kids. 13.1 used to be your jam, but now a slow 1 or 2 miles is a major accomplishment, when you even get the time for it.
And you still love “running.” You want it. You remember it. You know it. You miss it. You have your old medals, photos, miles logged on your running app, memories of worn down pair after pair of shoes. You occasionally look at your old race bibs and get very opposite feelings at the same time–happy and sad. . . .
Are you even a runner anymore?
Whatever your big thing is–and maybe you have a few of them–I wonder . . .
. . . why does time matter so much in your identity?
. . . and why can’t you still have it, even if in a more these-days version?
Why do we get so wrapped up in the passing of time when it comes to our identity?
You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished.
Why do they count less ten years later?
One day, it will be one hundred years later. And then, which will count as you? The one-hundred-years-ago you or the ninety-years-ago-you? At your funeral, who will be remembered? Only the you of the final couple years? Or the you that has lived a long and vibrant life of twists and turns and adventures and accomplishments and passions and stories and favorites?
Your memories and photographs of 10-year-old dancing you, 20-year-old dating you, 30-year-old running you, and 40-year-old parent you . . . they’re no less real or important or wonderful or YOU than they were 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago.
Why do we judge ourselves by arbitrary measurements of time when we tell ourselves and others of our identity–of what makes us us? Why don’t we just access our deep down selves, even if our deep down selves haven’t had the chance for many years to show up the way they love to? The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.
You don’t have to throw back-then-you away. Now-you will also one day be a back-then-you. They all count. Let go of time a little when you know and share yourself. Let you still be you.
And why can’t you still do that thing you once loved and still love? Is it not normal for this stage of life? No problem, be abnormal. Are you not as physically capable of it as you used to be? No problem, do it slower/lighter/easier. Is it too expensive to do as much as you used to? No problem, find (or make up) a cheaper version of it, no matter how unique.
What would happen if we still just did that thing we loved–still love? What would it take?
Among other things, it would take just letting go of the need to be “the best at” or even “good at.” Can we let go of that? If we can, there’s a lot of epic life to be lived.
It would also take accepting the fact that the experience will just be different now. When I was sixteen, I could eat a lot more pizza in one sitting than I can now. And I don’t feel as great the next day as I used to. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And before my concussion, I could run a lot harder than I’ve been able to since. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And exploring and traveling for me looks a little different now than it did when I was nineteen. Now, instead of living on the other side of the globe for the better part of a year, I sneak in a couple quick hiking days into a long weekend bookended by long drives. A little less glamorous. Okay. . . . That’s okay.
So that big thing of yours . . . that thing that holds so much of your identity, but that you feel you’ve lost . . . are you sure you’ve lost it? Won’t it always be a part of you? And could you still find a way to live it and celebrate it some more?
I’m still a World-traveler.
I hope to do lots more actually physically visiting other countries in my lifetime. I’d love someday to do it very regularly. But for now, I take hiking road trips in North America, study languages from places I want to adventure, learn about other cultures through documentaries, and explore those places on Google Maps for hours at a time.
I always will be a Word-traveler. Even when I’m stuck at home for a season.
It’s who I have been. It’s who I will be. And both of those make it who I am.