I heard a speech that took me twenty years to understand.
Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the first female president of Spelman College, looked out at an auditorium of bright, ambitious, rising college freshmen, who had earned their seat at an impressive leadership conference, and told us to stop planning. Instead, she advised us “know who you are, far more important than who you will be or what you will become.”
I had always been told to be myself—when making friends, making up with friends, when liking boys. “Being myself” was half the struggle of being a teenager, but I had never given a respectable thought to who that person actually was. When I took off the veil of the dramatic, brassy, clown whom I portrayed in everyday life, who was I? I hadn’t the faintest idea, but the notion of me determining who I would be sounded exciting. I called my mother that night, trembling with anticipation. The only thing I did know was I was ambitious. I had always pictured things bigger than they actually were. Everything had possibility. I didn’t know who the hell I was, but look out world!
In college, I knew beer, boys, and Greek life. In my twenties I wandered, trying a little of this and a little of that. Did I know me yet? All I knew was that I felt I was getting closer to something, something great. Then I started a family, and everything came to a halt. I brimmed with happiness in tickles, first moments, and endless kisses. For ten years, my life was consumed in a bubble of beautiful children and a happy home. Maybe this is what I was anticipating?
Then, my husband found me slumped in a chair, in my nightgown and socks, gazing out of the window of our playroom. It was a beautiful day uptown but the sunlight shown through the windows of our home onto a total mess—jumbles of Legos, discarded Barbies, crayons strewn, and wads of paper. I’d let the place fall apart. It was representative of my own present state.
I had dwindled into someone I certainly didn’t know. My job, my home, my precious children were all so wonderful. And I, the keeper of that wonder, was miserable. It was like angsting all over again, only I wasn’t a teenager. I was in my thirties. Twenty years had passed since Dr. Cole’s speech, and I had missed the point entirely. In the two decades since, I had searched and wandered for something that would define me, and all the while I forgot to ask, “Who am I?”
It’s a tricky game—knowing who you are. I think for starters, the key is not letting others dictate that for you. The second we allow others to tell us who we are, we aren’t. For years people told me I liked marketing. Turns out, I just really like people. There’s a difference. Maybe others tell you you’re a wiz with numbers, but it’s really that you like organizing. I, first, needed to stop pretending.
But what happens if it becomes easier to follow what we’re told because who we are scares us? Because maybe who we are requires too much change to move forward? Change can hurt others. The guilt of that paralyzed me. My coworkers, my husband, my children, they all needed my devotion. But I believe it is an act of bravery when we commit to being ourselves. If I didn’t acknowledge that I, too, deserved devotion, I would dissipate into a shadow of me. In saving ourselves, we help those we love. We’re no good to them otherwise.
If Dr. Cole is right, we don’t have a choice, assuming we want to be happy. We can make all the big plans and be ambitious, but without first knowing who we are—what moves us, coupled with our needs and our limits—we’ll never get anywhere. In my case, we turned our lives upside down. It hasn’t been easy, but my children see a confidence in me they never knew existed. Talk about motivation!
I don’t know everything, but I know enough to know that being you is the real gift in life. Whether she’s creative, a trailblazer, a nurturer, or a clown, she is the most effective to others when she shines brightest. And isn’t that why we’re all here anyway? To leave this world a little better than how we found it? I don’t know who I will ultimately be remembered as. I don’t know what will become of all that I do. But I do know that I am a philosopher, a student, a lover of laughter, and a proponent of hope.
If I know that first, in all that I do, in every day that I do, everything else will fall into place.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.