At some point in your young life, you were rewarded for being something — and the pleasure of that reward led you to end up believing that was who you really were.
But who were you before that? Who were you before parents and teachers and culture taught you to conform to what they wanted? Do you remember?
Those people rarely say, “This is what I want you to be.” They don’t even necessarily have bad intentions. But the people around you start shaping you into what they believe you ought to be. Sometimes they try to make you into little versions of themselves. Sometimes they’re acting out of fears from their own lives — trying to save you from something which damaged them.
But you were born knowing who you are. Do you remember who that is?
Do you remember when people started rewarding you in ways that made you obedient? I didn’t realize it was going on at the time. I was just another child going through just another routine childhood.
I was praised and rewarded for being smart and compliant. I craved the praise, so I was unconsciously determined to fill the role that got me rewarded. Through more than half a dozen school systems as I grew up — we moved around a lot — I learned how to be the smartest kid in the class. I learned to please teachers by giving them what they wanted. I was a perfect fit for a school system based on compliance with cultural standards.
I learned all sorts of things for my teachers. Those things meant nothing to me, but I craved the rewards I was offered. I craved the attention and love and praise that I experienced when people knew I was the best.
I learned how to be what my parents and teachers and culture wanted, but I forgot all about who I had been before they started shaping me into the model student.
Who was I before that?
I’ve forgotten so much that it’s hard to answer the question, but I was a creator. I had visions of things that could be and I was driven to make those things into reality. I needed to change the world around me in ways that were both big and small. But those visions were captured and redirected into academic pursuits.
Nobody around me had bad intentions, so that’s not the point. Every child and every generation has gone through this. Some of it is absolutely required for us to survive — we have to learn not to play in traffic, for instance — but much of the well-intended training we received was based on others’ desires for us to be like them — or for them to be able to live their lives vicariously through our successes.
I don’t know where you draw the line. Which things are just teaching a child what he needs to know to survive in a culture and which things cause him to be changed irredeemably into something different from what he was born to be?
I don’t know the right answers to those questions, but I’m painfully aware of the questions. No matter how much I’ve thought about it, though, I’ll inevitably make some of the same mistakes with my own children.
But what if I can raise my children to always try to hold onto what they are when they were born? Would that make a difference for them? Would it make a difference if I gave them the essential guidance they needed to remain safe — but if I gave them the sovereignty over their own lives to shape who they are and what they believe?
Do you remember who you were? Can you imagine what you would be today if you hadn’t been manipulated into achieving things which others wanted? Can you imagine which things would matter to you if you weren’t still trying to be good enough for someone who is long gone? Who might even be dead? Can you really get the approval of such ghosts?
I remember bits and pieces of who I was. Those are the bits and pieces that seem to be the most genuine parts of me. They seem to be the parts I’ve unconsciously sacrificed over the last decades to serve.
I have a feeling that getting back in touch with who I was — and then living a life that’s congruent with that person — is key to the resolution of a lifetime of emotional angst. That might be true for you, too.
Who were you before they told you what to become?
Note: I’m the little boy in the photo up top. I don’t remember the little girl’s name, but I’m told she was a close friend when I was that age. We lived on Navajo Trail in the Center Point area of Birmingham at the time.