In the bottom of my bedroom closet, there is a box containing a sewing machine. I use it every once in a while to hem a pair of pants or fix a seam somewhere — no major projects anymore. But back in high school…shiny alligator-print faux leather pants? a long-sleeved autumnal dress with tons of buttons? a bright red-and-orange Chinese-style dress called a “cheongsam”? Oh, yeah, I sewed it all, and I wore it all, and I was darn proud of it. A part of me nowadays cringes when I think about that, but another part says, “Well, good for you, young Tania! You just did your own thing!”
A few years after my sewing days, I read “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die,” by John Izzo, Ph.D. He interviewed a couple hundred people over the age of 60 to hear their suggestions about making the most out of our lives. I wrote down the five points and kept a copy in my wallet for a long time, but the first point never really hit close to home until it actually became a real, active, obvious thing to me — when I deconverted from my religious faith about seven years ago. In some ways, I’d been living the first point already — just look at those pants! and that short spiky hair! — but in small ways in comparison to what was to come. That first point is “Be True to Yourself.”
Ah, yes… Being true to yourself. Letting the outside match the inside. Doing what you want to do or need to do, instead of allowing other people to make your decisions for you. Being honest with yourself. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, marching to the beat of your own drummer.
Sometimes, being true to oneself comes at a cost, whether that’s emotionally, socially, logistically, financially, and so on. And yet, quite often it’s so totally worth it. I’ll never forget the day I dropped out of nursing school, almost half a lifetime ago now. It was the start of the second year of a four-year program, and I just wasn’t “into it.” I’d spend a lot of time contemplating other options and just sitting through class, uninterested. One warm autumn day, I was a few hours into a shift during my practicum, and I just knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. After talking briefly with my instructor, I walked out of the hospital. I sat at a picnic table at a nearby park, and I wondered, “What on Earth do I do now?” I’d spent years thinking that this is what I wanted to do. I had no alternative plan, no job, no rental where I could stay…and a fairly large student loan. It was one of the most terrifying and thrilling moments of my life.
I have a friend who, having kept quiet about her sexual identity and preferences for the first couple decades of her life, finally revealed to everyone the truth about who she is. As she told me bits and pieces of her story, I gained a deeper understanding of the struggles she dealt with — conflicts in her own mind (she’d also been raised in a Christian environment where any sexual orientation besides heterosexuality is frowned on immensely), telling her parents, meeting and getting to know a partner of the same sex instead of the opposite-sex partners of her past. As it turned out, her revelation wasn’t catastrophic for her family as she’d imagined it would be, and I know that she feels lighter now that she can be honest with herself and others.
Doing what you feel you have to do isn’t always about a major life decision — it’s not always a life-changing thing, but I think it’s still important that our actions and our thoughts line up, even in the little things. Four years ago, I was invited to the wedding of another friend — but at the time, our friendship was broken. To this day, I’m a bit sad that I didn’t go… but I also know that at that time, with what was going on, there was no way I could be a cheerful, optimistic guest at her wedding. My attendance there woudn’t have felt “right.” So I stayed home, where I didn’t have to fake a thing. Over time, we’ve been fixing things, and I’m hopeful again that I’ll be a guest at her 50-year wedding anniversary!
It’s not always an easy thing to be true to oneself. It can be downright heart-breaking to let go of parts of your life that you thought would always be around. I watch a co-worker struggling with a marriage that just doesn’t seem to get better. My guess might be wrong because I don’t know the whole story, but I imagine a battle going on inside: “This is what I signed up for, this is what’s expected of me, this is what I’ve spent years investing into… but I don’t want it anymore, I don’t want to do this anymore, I’ve tried and tried and I think I’m done.” I know, too, from personal experience, the pain of knowing that what you’re doing — in my case, leaving my religious faith — is going to hurt your parents, your friends, your church family. It hurts sometimes to realize that what was once so important — so true, so real, so seemingly vital — is no longer so. I know that in many of these instances, I’ve tried and tried to make things work — to make them go back to “how they used to be.” But in the meantime, I’ve grown. New information has been presented to me, or I’ve sought out new information. Other people have changed. What was such a big deal ten years ago isn’t anymore. I realize how short and precious life is — and that I don’t have an endless supply of time and effort to spend on everything that shows up on my path.
I’ve learned that some people won’t try to understand your ways, no matter what. They’ll dislike you, no matter what you do or don’t do. They’ll come around, eventually, or they won’t — and that’s not your problem. Bernard Baruch (or, according to many sources, Dr. Seuss) advises, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Of course, we still have to be careful because we probably don’t want too many people to hate us or think we’re crazy, but I think that’s pretty good advice!
So, my words of wisdom? Spend your time with people who make you feel happy, not just with people who are “age-appropriate” or have the same level of education or who are “cool” (or whom you’ve known for years and therefore “should” be in your life forever). Pick up the phone and make an appointment with that marriage counsellor, even though you’ve been telling yourself for years that you’re fine, your marriage is fine, and you have no need for such thing as marriage counselling. Spend a Friday night at Tim Hortons by yourself, with a good book, if that’s your idea of a fun weekend activity. Fork out a pile of money to a cause that you have researched and think is worthy, if that’s what you wish to do.
And by all means, go ahead — sew yourself those alligator-print pants and an orange dress covered in leaves!