I was listening to a conversation between Oprah and India Arie the other day while walking my dog (okay, can we just pause in awe of the miracle of technology in that sentence). For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, India Arie is a musician who had a meteoric rise to fame about 15 years ago, took a break from music, and then returned on her own terms.
In discussing this time with Oprah, Ms. Arie said that she realized that in her early incarnation in the music business, she was not living her own life, but was rather inhabiting the one her mother wanted for her. She was doing all of the things she knew her mother would want her to do so she could have all of the things she knew her mother would want her to have. She was living her mother’s imagined daughter’s life. BAM. It was a revelation that pointed the way to an obvious set of next steps, starting with figuring out what she wanted independent of all of that.
It was a great conversation and as I listened I reflected on all of the different ways that we can live someone else’s version of our own lives. When I went to college, I was at something of a loss for what to study. My best times in high school were spent on the stage: singing and acting. I told friends I wanted to be a history teacher, but I think I really wanted to keep being on stage.
But somehow, I became convinced that this was not a pursuit I was meant to undertake, and when I let that super secret dream go, I was adrift. I enjoyed my history classes, but not enough. I began to take political science classes, a “more practical” version of history was my justification. In truth, I had grown up in the D.C. suburbs, and my understanding of careers included a lot of folks who likely studied political science, either formally or on the floor of the buildings in the capitol. I began to sketch out a version of myself that I think had everything to do with people I’d seen and admired and not much to do with where I felt on fire. I began to tell myself what people wanted for me, what my parents would respect (I didn’t ask them mind you, just decided for them) and charted a course that worked and got me finished in four years.
I was living someone else’s life – one that I made up for them. I was meeting expectations that were purely fictitious. And over time, the gap between my fictitious life and the one in my heart or the one I had yet to discover demonstrated itself in a variety of ways. I tried jobs on. I tried ideas on. I switched around, moved house, changed coasts. I kept shifting back and forth between doing what felt right and doing what “WAS RIGHT.” And if you’d asked me where that pressure was coming from, the pressure to do anything other than live my own unique life, I would have cited external sources every time.
I didn’t have the maturity or wisdom or emotional honesty to realize that I had done it to myself. A pushy parent or overbearing spouse can only go so far in taking us away from our path, as demonstrated by the fact that I had neither. To really diverge from our path, we have to submit to the desires of others (including the desires we imagine they have) and resist our own inclinations. We have to subvert our internal wiring and discipline ourselves thoroughly. We have to stop living our own lives and live someone else’s. Having a deeper, fuller, more satisfying time on this earth requires us to live our own lives.
These ideas we have about why we don’t do that very thing: other people, practicality, reality, logistics, responsibility… they’re all baloney. They’re all there to keep us from having to face what we really want in the world and find the courage to do that. When we give our choices to other people, when we make them responsible, we give our power away wholesale. We surrender everything we need to be our best selves.
“But,” you say: “I DO have responsibilities…” Yes, you do. Where on that list of responsibilities are YOU?
I love you.