Everyone has his or her own story. Our history, family, faith, environment—all of it combines to create a background story that runs through our entire life, for better or worse. Through the ups and downs, the surprise plot twists, the losses and accomplishments, we write a new chapter day by day.
The problems arise when we forget our story or get stuck in a bad chapter or let someone else write the story for us. Have you ever walked into a family gathering happy, confident, carefree, only to find yourself crashing downward when a loved one says something (perhaps unconsciously) meant to fit you into someone else’s characterization of you? Suddenly you are 12 years old again and powerless.
I look at my own childhood and my own children, and it’s easy to see how we can sometimes foist our own definitions upon others—the social butterfly, the brain, the daredevil, the helper, the troublemaker. But when we take a closer look, we see things that go much deeper than the labels. We are all complex beings. We hear everything, see everything from our own unique perspective. Meanwhile, the people we love, the people who drive us crazy, the people we encounter in even the most fleeting moments of our days respond to us from their own perspectives and stories. It’s fascinating and at times frustrating no matter which side of the equation we are on.
How do we defy the definitions that threaten to contain us to the small world other people want us to live in? How do we throw off the labels and embrace the path God has laid before us? By embracing our true selves, the people we were created to be, not the people we think we should be or the people the world tells us to be.
In his book “No Man Is an Island,” Thomas Merton wrote: “Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”
Deep inside I think most of us have a sense of what we were made for, but we don’t trust ourselves, don’t trust God. We believe what the world tells us—it’s too difficult, you’re not smart enough, you don’t have the temperament—and we throw obstacles in our own way. The older we get, the harder it becomes to shake that.
I remember years ago, when Chiara was first starting out in gymnastics, many of the girls would step up to the uneven parallel bars to attempt the aptly named “fly-away,” which requires a gymnast to let go of the bar and sail through the air for a few terrifying seconds, and they would freeze at the moment of truth. Their feet would cling to the bar and they’d hang there like a little cocoon, as the coach tried to convince them to let go.
Chiara, who, truth be told, often wears the “daredevil” label in our family, never hesitated, not even for a nanosecond. She’d flip her legs up, release her hands and fly into the air as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I would watch that moment of pure trust in absolute awe.
We start out trusting, all of us, but somewhere along the way the stories people tell us about ourselves become more real than our own truth. Someone makes fun of us or scolds us, highlights a flaw or plants seeds of doubt, and little by little we begin to hold tighter to the bar, afraid if we let go we’ll hit the ground with a splat.
Own your story. Trust your heart. Let God reveal your true self and then let go and soar.
This column originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2020, issue of Catholic New York.