“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them and try to follow where they lead.” by Louisa May Alcott, author
I recently read the above quote in Wally Lamb’s novel I’ll Take You there. It’s a reminder to me and my inner critic to not lose site of the beauty of my own hopes and dreams. To continue striving toward their beauty, even if there is a chance I may not reach them.
The last month I have been wrestling with my own inner critic that likes to feed off fear and insecurity. Sadly, I keep it well fed and tended while simultaneously starving and neglecting my dreams of becoming a writer. Why do I cling to this fear and allow myself to nurture it instead of shedding it’s weight and freeing myself to embrace the joy of losing myself in my writing?
I believe the original root of my fear stems from a childhood trauma. A trauma that has clung to me since the eighth grade and refuses to let me bask in my own awesomeness. Okay, perhaps the term “trauma” is a bit too dramatic. But we’ve all had experiences whether long ago or in the recent past that cling to us like leeches and instead of removing them we allow them to continue sucking our blood and draining our spirit of dreams or hopes that are associated with that event. The experience makes us tie an anvil (or cement shoes if you prefer the mobster analogy) to the piece of our soul that feels wounded or traumatized and throw it into the depths of our psyche that allows the tiny creatures of fear and criticism to nibble away at it until nothing remains but a carcass of a lost hope or dream.
All my life I have loved books and writing. Writing assignments in school were not torture, but an opportunity to be creative and I loved doing them. When my Junior High School announced the addition of a creative writing class I was one of the first ones to sign up. Finally! A class where I could unleash my words and join others who loved writing as much as I did. My enthusiasm was slightly dampened when I found out the teacher was Mrs. Cady, the same teacher I had despised as my seventh grade English teacher. But surely not even she could ruin this for me, could she?
The class was composed of both eighth and ninth graders. There was one ninth grader that stood out for me. She was funny, smart, and a good writer. Her essays and writing assignments garnered top grades. And then one day, it happened. Mrs. Cady asked her to read her most recent assignment, a short story, out loud. Back in those days I was painfully shy and would have died of embarrassment had I been asked to read my own writing out loud. But not this gal. She was excited and eager to share her work with everyone. I can’t remember what her story was about, but I remember enjoying it and laughing as she read the parts that were intended to be funny. And still, after more than forty years, I remember how she ended it – “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sows ear.” So clever! The class practically cheered when she was done.
Not Mrs. Cady. Her scowl was more frightening than seeing Freddy Krueger in your dreams. And then it started, unexpected and terrifying, a rant so cruel that everyone in the classroom froze as the horrifying scene unfolded. With a voice reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West, she ripped apart the story line by line. Through snickers and smirks and degrading language, she brought the student to tears. To this day I can feel the shame and hurt the student felt as the teacher ranted. It was the day I tied the anvil to that piece of my soul and let it sink. There was no way I was going to expose myself to such public ridicule and humiliation. I could practically feel the fear manifest as physical pain as I sat there and held back my own tears that wanted to flow in support of my fellow student.
I focused on doing what I knew I could do well, classes where my teachers lauded me with praise and good grades. I still enjoyed writing and got good grades when there were writing assignments, but the dream of writing as anything more than just an assignment had been sunk deep into my subconscious where it safely resided for many years. So why raise the dream now? Why dredge it back up from the depths and begin the painful process of battling my fears of criticism, ridicule, and just simply not being good enough? Wouldn’t it be easier to sigh wistfully and let it drift away and keep doing the things that I know I’m good at?
The answer is yes, it would be easier to let it drift away on the tide of unfulfilled dreams. But in all the years I have worked in Human Resources there is a theme I keep hearing from so many retirees – the theme of “I wish I would have.” It made me reevaluate my own “I wish I would haves.” I began to realize I couldn’t allow my fears of criticism or not being good enough to rule whether or not I would do something that I like to do. And so what if one person, or many, don’t like what I write? There are others that do. I have been allowing one negative voice (my own in the same timbre as Mrs. Cady’s) to overrule others, just because I think it’s easier, because I don’t want to deal with the pain of maybe being ridiculed or coming to realize I may not be good enough. It has taken many years for me to understand the depth of these feelings. And I will do what it takes to silence that internal critic – whether it’s about my writing or other parts of my life – I will stand up for myself and I will continue to reach for my dreams. In the end, the pain of regretting the things I haven’t done far outweighs the pain of that voice from long ago that has lingered for so long.
I will put the anvil on Mrs. Cady and silence her voice in my head and allow myself to see the beauty of reaching for my dream.