As a family, we love to explore, and one day we were all walking around a new town. As I was in a long line buying Abigail ice cream from a truck, she made up an excuse that she wanted to scoot up and down the street, and ran off with my husband. She found a hat store (that I actually love) and surprised me with a hat. Her thoughtful gift brings tears to my eyes as I write this. At her tender age of 7, it seems like she innately knows how hard I’ve worked to free myself of limitations. To arrive on my terms. To live the life I should be living, rather than the life others assign to me. To be free. After all, she was growing in my belly when I was working through many challenges to arrive at this place of freedom—the kind of internal freedom that involves attention, awareness, discipline, and effort to sustain.
This year, my birthday blog thoughts are inspired by my youngest daughter, Abigail’s, gift: It is a baseball hat with an eagle on it that says “freedom.” I love wearing my feelings on a shirt and baseball hats. For someone who is always putting ink to paper, sometimes before I can articulate how I feel, I like to have my shirt and hat speak for me. Sometimes my clothing choices reflect what I already feel, and sometimes it works the other way around. If I want to feel strong, for instance, I might wear a shirt or hat that reinforces that intention.
The eagle also happens to be Abigail’s spirit animal, which is most frequently associated with wisdom and freedom. I think this feeling is actually one of the things that connects Abigail to me in a deep, soulful way.
It’s all the more poignant because at one time, I felt like a black sheep. In fact, I have a hat that proudly announces that affiliation.
The origin of the term “black sheep” is traced to a 1535 translation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, with the passage “All blacke shepe amonge the lambes.” Being a black sheep, even back then, wasn’t a good thing. For farmers tending their flocks, rare black wool was considered commercially undesirable because it could not be dyed. Also—no surprise—in 18th and 19th century England, the black color was sometimes seen as the mark of the devil. Today, the phrase usually describes a member of a group or family who doesn’t quite fit in, usually because they think, act, and view life differently from the collective group.
For most of my life, that was me. You wouldn’t have been able to tell from looking at me, but if you could have seen what I felt on the inside, it would have been clear.
I was born in Louisiana, the middle child of three daughters. Even though I had a happy childhood in Thibodaux, I didn’t quite fit in for various reasons. We can start with religion. Suffice to say, I’m not Catholic. I was also born into a middle eastern family, and in the 1970s, the decade when I was born, I felt quite misunderstood. Being Persian in the South is not a recipe for blending in. My feelings of separateness weren’t solely derived from my environment or influences, though. I always had a sense of somehow being different, internally. I felt different in the way that I thought, felt, and interpreted everything I saw around me.
When I was eight years old, we moved to Beverly Hills, California. Southern California has many positives, including lovely homes, fun people, and mild, sunny weather. But like anything, it has a dark side: the standards of beauty can seem impossibly high. I sometimes think I tried to fit in by overachieving in my own way (I’m a Virgo. I’m a middle child. It’s what we do.). I listened to many family members talk about others’ physical imperfections and wondered about my own. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to have friends. I didn’t want to be judged on any level. So, naturally, my takeaway was that I needed to be… perfect.
My solution was to try to create perfection in every aspect of my life. If something is perfect, it is, by definition, unassailable. There is no way to criticize perfection, because, well…it’s perfect. I dedicated myself to building protective walls by pursuing that elusive perfection. Clearly, this is not achievable. It also creates a space of loneliness and unhappiness.
I have noticed that I attract blame and judgment, especially in times when I’m striving to be my best, working toward a goal, and making great strides. For whatever reason, I have been at the end of some pointed and often vocal criticism at every stage of my life, from my not-so-great fifth-grade teacher, to members of my family, to my peers, and co-workers. The feelings that arise when people attack your character or judge you can be overwhelming, especially when we are doing something we are passionate about.
As an adult, I went through an especially difficult few years, wherein it seemed that anything I did was deemed wrong. Conversely, everything I didn’t do was also judged as wrong. You know that old saying, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” That was my plot line. It was at that time I started enthusiastically embracing and identifying myself as a black sheep. I identified as a black sheep. I finally decided to choose me over others’ opinions of me. I fully embraced being different and, from that consciousness, allowed myself to fully love, embrace, and reveal all parts of me–even the imperfect parts. I realized that in our failings and faults, the best parts of us are revealed. This validated my sense of self and empowered me to think, look, and act naturally. To be myself.
With a few year’s perspective, I can say that the opinions of those who judged and criticized me actually became the catalyst for my successes. Those naysayers and hecklers booing from the sidelines are a powerful sign you’re succeeding, that you’re on the right track.
I began to accept others’ criticism, not as proof that I was on the wrong path, but as evidence that I was living my life authentically. I stopped taking criticism to heart and actually found it to be—dare I say?—liberating. If the black sheep label fit when I was living an authentic, honest life—so be it.
Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself, to become what he potentially is. The most important product of his effort is his own personality.
Today, I no longer consider myself a black sheep because I’ve transcended the need for that label (true to my nature of not liking labels, I evolved to discard that one, too). I’m fully authentic in who I am. I’m on a path of freedom. Freedom, to me, means not having to apologize for any aspect of yourself, even the traits that aren’t the most desirable. We all have them. I accept those parts of myself. I acknowledge they exist and can be changed, and in change, there is great power.
In his 2005 commencement speech to the graduates at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace reflected on what true freedom really is—and it’s not what we have been led to believe.
“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
True freedom means freedom from, as he puts it, worship. When we worship things outside of ourselves—the job, the car, physical beauty, power—we create chaos in ourselves and the world. To worship these things means to be stuck in a continuous loop of lack mentality; it means to live life unconsciously.
Wallace expands on freedom, saying, “If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables, the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth upfront in daily consciousness.”
RETHINK MOMENT: Are you living your life for yourself or according to others’ expectations? Today, accept who you are, rather than who others think you should be. Improving yourself starts from a place of loving and accepting yourself.
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