(as published this morning on Minerva Rising’s blog)
‘I am not human, I’m Sarah’ was perhaps my earliest form of rebellion, in response to the taunting of older siblings. But it stuck. To this day I defy rules, cannot sign on the right line, fail miserably at standardized box-filling forms, refuse to follow recipes to the letter (aren’t they supposed to be mere suggestions from which to create your own variations?), and rarely even follow my own agenda for a workshop I’m leading.
Since my earliest days I found comfort in defining myself in every possible way as ‘other’ from my family. At first, this defensive posture was a sorry cover-up for feeling left out, not measuring up to the demands of intellectual discourse at meals. Later, my rebelliousness played out in refusal to wear the beautiful clothes my mother thought appropriate, electing instead to shop second-hand, creating my own style along with my own values of frugality and originality. As a not-so-young new mother, I was constantly challenged by sage pronouncements that ‘consistency’ equaled good/successful parenting. Me? Do the same thing twice?? Despite my inborn propensities to the contrary, I was able deliver two absolute consistencies during my children’s growing-up years: their 7 p.m. bedtime; and my consistent lack of consistency in every other respect.
And here’s what all this rebelling has taught me over the years: as a defense mechanism, it lacks substance. I spent an awful lot of time and energy, psychic and otherwise, defining myself as who I was NOT, when I would have done well to figure out the opposite. Living in negative space works best if you are a painting. Rebellion as a stance for living also tends to emit closed-mindedness – even if only perceived – because it requires so much nay-saying. It can make you appear abrasive when inside you are simply scared and searching.
But perhaps the longest-lasting and most deep-seated lesson from living rebellion is how it kept me from myself. I have finally come to believe that accepting everything about myself – my differences from my family, my personal values and tastes, my very voice – are not only enough; they are abundantly OK. I do not need to live in the shadow of others’ negative opinions, even if they were the ones that originally formed me. In fact, living right out in the light of my own opinions and choices creates confidence, balance and good health. Watching the women with whom I write weekly inside Vermont’s women’s prison reach this same conclusion clinches it for me: we often imprison ourselves behind walls of our own making. Looking around them takes courage; knocking them down brings true freedom.
What I most rebel against today is the extreme polarization of our society that pushes us to one end of the yardstick or the other. Most of us live somewhere between ‘with’ and ‘against,’ more often inhabiting a mix of the two. Don’t believe in war but feel protected with a strong military? Pro-life AND pro-gun? I am learning, thanks to my children’s own parting of ways from my own, to speak what resonates and let myself continue along my path of inconsistency. For instance, I am drawn to the ‘Life is Precious’ bumper sticker because life is indeed precious; the image of the single rose is simple, speaks to me. At the same time, I am pro-choice in certain specific scenarios. This is what it means to be human, after all. To think, feel, choose; evolve over the course of a lifetime; allow yourself to be persuaded by evidence; manage a balance between personal values and public action, preferably in service to the common weal while harming no one.
I am still Sarah. AND I am most definitely human.