My husband and I went to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” last week, the story of Freddy Mercury and the band, Queen. In addition to thoroughly enjoying the music, I loved watching this young man determinedly walking his own, authentic path through life. Even in his early 20s, he never wavered from his flamboyant sense of style and his certainty that it was his very unique appearance and voice that made him appealing. He and his bandmates were brave and true to themselves in their music – never hesitating to chase a new or challenging inspiration.
For me, the most powerful moment in the film was a meeting that the band attended with the head of their record label. The music executive essentially says to them, “What you are doing simply is not done.” Mercury and his bandmates refuse to compromise on their music – which is brand new and wildly different from anything else “out there.” Whether factual or not, as the musicians throw caution to the wind and walk out, Mercury looks back over his shoulder and says, “You will be forever remembered as the guy who passed on Queen.”
Such authenticity! To have that level confidence in yourself must feel incredibly powerful. To have that much faith that the only way to truly live is to be truly you is nothing short of astounding. Strangely, somehow, the act of walking away from the proposed inauthenticity (and promised success) looked much easier than it would have been to do the work of trying to conform to industry standards and expectations.
Sadly, it is more common for people to spend their energy on fitting in. This is immediately, and painfully, obvious from even the most casual walk around every middle school everywhere where young people are more concerned about being just like everyone else than on being authentic to themselves. In fact, I’ve often (half) joked that I discovered within days of moving from Houston, Texas to a new middle school in Connecticut when I was in 8th grade that my new mantra would have to be “conform or die.”
30 years later, while I don’t feel sad about parting ways with my “Texas hair,” I still feel wistful about the twang in my speech that I relentlessly obliterated in an effort to sound like my new classmates. The desire to blend in, however, is not limited to adolescence. It can continue well into adulthood and can determine life choices of much greater significance than accents or fashion. It can dictate what or where we choose to study. It can influence the career that we pursue, whether we choose to practice a faith, whether or when we start a family. It can actually affect the life we choose for ourselves.
If we’re lucky, we wake up one morning feeling somehow squished or trapped in our lives. For the record, most who wake up feeling this way will probably not immediately feel fortunate. Feelings of in-authenticity are not fun. They can range from a general sense of unease to a heavy, gray depression. These feelings are symptoms of living in a way that does not honor who you really are. Moments like that have many labels. Most optimistically, they can be called “awakenings.” Most bleakly, “midlife crises” or even “breakdowns.”
There’s no telling what will shake you awake. It could be a health crisis or the loss of a loved one. It could be the birth of your child or the moment that child leaves home to start her own life. It could be a practice like yoga, that asks you to reconnect with yourself on a physical and emotional level. It could be a really good sermon, a powerfully written book or a great movie. It could be witnessing an innovative, unique and absolutely authentic soul like Freddy Mercury, living life on his own terms.
Rest assured, most of us are somewhat less courageous and certain of who we are at any age than Freddy Mercury was while still quite young. But that doesn’t mean, when our time comes, that we can’t be inspired by bright lights like him to set off courageously down our own path. The instant we choose to do so will, without doubt, be a pivotal moment in our lives. After all, it will feel like a brand new beginning. Mostly because it is.
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you!” – Dr. Seuss
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According to Google, anxiety is defined as a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
For people with anxiety disorder, these feelings of worry or fear are not temporary. They do not go away, and they often worsen over time. Even more troubling is that, with anxiety disorder, it can be incredibly challenging to suss out what is causing the sense of anxiety. Without a clear cause, figuring out how to remedy these feelings can seem hopeless.
While I have intimate experience, as a mother and a friend, with anxiety disorder, until last year I had never experienced it myself. Sometime in my 51st year of life, however, that changed. While I have suspicions, as is true for many, it is nearly impossible for me to point a finger at a specific cause. What I know is that I gradually realized as winter ebbed into spring, that I was living with ceaseless, physical sensations of panic complete with tightness in my chest, jumpiness, poor sleep and a relentlessly spinning mind.
As spring slid into summer, and summer into fall, my anxiety persisted. I applied all the tools in my (rather full) yoga and mindfulness tool-box to my uneasy inner state. Breathing. Daily physical movement. Meditation and prayer. Keen awareness of my feelings. Weekly acupuncture appointments. Therapy. Patience and persistence as I practiced the skills I trusted would help me stay centered until these feelings eventually passed away.
And I credit these tools and skills with helping me navigate my disorder in such a way that my feelings did not interfere (at least not much, I hope) with my work and relationships. But, as challenging as it is for the yoga and philosophy teacher in me to admit it, they did not “cure” my anxiety. They simply helped me to live with it.
Imagine how stunned I was to realize three days into our winter vacation that I was suddenly anxiety free! I could breathe fully. My heart felt free and light. I was sleeping soundly and through the night. When I mentioned (with tremendous relief) how good I felt to my inquisitive husband, I didn’t have any answers to his inevitable questions. I didn’t know why the feelings had lifted. I didn’t know if it would last.
I realized with some surprise that I did know that these answer-less questions didn’t make me feel anxious. They made me feel curious. While it is not possible to stay on vacation, I wondered if there were aspects of being “away,” that I could bring home with me. So I watched myself to see what I was doing and how I was living differently than when I was at home.
My observations revealed that, while on vacation, I was experiencing life rather than getting caught up in doing all the things of life. I was fully engaged in each experience our trip offered. When circumstances strove to distract me (for instance, when my kids bickered over the camera or I got frustrated with the chronic lack of wifi as I tried to stay in touch with my parents), I witnessed myself dig deep and resist. I observed myself take a deep breath and choose to refocus on the experience at hand. I practiced (successfully!) staying in the moment and reaped tremendous rewards.
When I was engaged in the moment, I found that I didn’t feel anxious at all. Instead, I felt like me again. I felt bright and happy. I felt wonder and awe. I felt feelings again other than worry. I felt ALIVE.
My yoga teacher would say that I had shifted into a “human being” from a “human doing” and I 100% agree with him.
Upon reflection, I could see that, at home, I had developed the habit of running furiously from task to task. I was spending my days much more focused on my (oh-so-long) list of things that needed doing rather than on the experience of doing each one. I was very rarely living in the moment because I was constantly allowing myself to be distracted by moments in the future and past, neither of which were within my control or even really real.
I boarded my (very long) flight home with the hope to arrive back into my daily life strong enough to resist the temptation of slipping back into being a “human doing.” As my first Monday morning at home dawned, I took a deep breath and gently quelled a little flare of worry that my anxiety would resume as my work did. Instead of allowing my mind to skitter off toward my list for the day, I focused on each task throughout the day – practicing yoga, teaching, writing, getting organized, attending meetings, cooking dinner, and so forth.
At the end of the day, I thought to myself, “It was a good day.” Guess what? At the end of the week, I thought, “It’s been a good week.”
While I am not brave enough to say that my long bout with anxiety has been cured, I am hopeful that I’ve stumbled upon a new super-tool to add to my toolbox. And I am choosing (quite deliberately) to savor each day (actually, each moment in each day) when I feel like me.
“We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity.” – Desmond Tutu
Did you know that the warthog is best friends with the giraffe and the elephant? No, this is not a “fact” I picked up in a Disney movie. This is truly a relationship I witnessed over and over again in real life in Kenya’s National Preserves.
While we’re at it, did you know that lions can choose to nurture prey animals instead of hunting them? It’s true. A lioness in Samburu National Preserve (in the north of Kenya) repeatedly adopted orphaned oryx calves and raised them until they could live independently. Her choice gave that park its slogan: “Where nature defies itself.”
We went to Kenya to celebrate our daughter’s impending high school graduation. This is the last of our family “graduation trips,” perhaps the least-considered, best idea my husband and I ever hatched. By encouraging each of our children to choose a destination somewhere in the world, we hoped to create family memories that would never fade. More so, we hoped to teach our kids that our little corner is not a good indication of what the whole world is like.
While we didn’t recognize this upon departure, looking back, each of these three trips had a sweeping theme. Iceland was all about the land – its majestic, breathtaking beauty. Thailand was all about the people – architecture, spirituality, culture and history. In Kenya, it was mostly about the wildlife. Land. Animals. People. What an accidental, beautiful whole those three themes make!
Even more wonderful is that one word sums up the true, over-arching gift of all three of our trips. Diversity. The diversity of this world that we share is stupefying in every way. Our travels have taught us that diversity, rather than the homogeneity so many of us instinctively seek, is the norm.
As we entered the Maasai Mara, the first game preserve of our trip, we glimpsed a zebra in the brush along the side of the road. We begged our guide to stop the truck. He laughed at us and told us that in two days, we wouldn’t even look twice when we drove past yet another herd of these beautiful beasts. “They’re a dime a dozen here.” While his prediction never quite came to fruition (we were still photographing zebras on our final game drive), we did see his point. Zebra, in that region of the world, are as common as the white tail deer is in the northeast portion of the United States, where we live.
The zebra taught us that, worldwide, even within “normal” and “common” there is diversity. The beautiful zebra was a powerful reminder that “normal” and “common” do not mean “plain.” No matter where you travel on an average day of your life, look around. The zebra and the deer and the ubiquitous grey squirrel are proof that there is beauty to behold in the things you see every single day.
What was able to distract us from the zebra was the otherworldly experience of looking up to see a giraffe slowly wandering across the plain. In fact, we caught ourselves humming the Jurassic Park theme song on more than one occasion. There is nothing like the willowy giraffe to make you wonder at the creativity and artistry of evolution. And then to see it sharing space quite peacefully with the massive, mighty elephant? That sight was like a billboard for the beauty and possibility of diversity.
But it was a young guide at a giraffe preservation center in Nairobi on our very last day who brought Kenya’s message of diversity home for me. It was he who described the relationship between warthogs (perhaps the most surprising animal to steal our hearts) and giraffes and elephants as a friendship. It turns out there was more than simple sharing of space going on. The animals I glimpsed together were not just peacefully coexisting, they were choosing to be with one another.
These three animals could not look more different from one another, yet they choose each other. They have very different strengths and weaknesses. Even the ways that they forage vary wildly. While some of the food they enjoy is the same, mostly it’s not. What seals the deal for them is that they have learned that it is possible to work together to defend themselves against their common, more powerful enemies, the big cats.
In one tiny sentence, this young man stirred up elephant- and giraffe-sized hope in me. Imagine if we could look around our world and see the potential in relationships with those who look different than we do, who behave differently than we do, who make different choices than we do. Imagine if we could look beyond any perceived threats to the potential gifts of reaching out to others. Imagine if we deliberately chose to consider friendships as unexpected as those found between the warthog and Kenya’s more glamorous, towering duo.
These dreams are my souvenirs from our family travels where we’ve found wonder, beauty and joy in all the differences, curiosities and even oddities that seem to be part and parcel of this world we share. If we choose to embrace diversity the way the world around us does, perhaps Samburu’s lioness-inspired slogan could become our own. “Earth: where humanity defies itself.”
In this New Year, I offer to you this hope that I brought home with me from Kenya.
Happy New Year!
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