The Fallacy & Faith of Encouragement
How the support we’re given as small children can lead to disappointment as we grow older … and then, ultimately, to courage.
My parents filled my head with the most uplifting of semantics. Ever since I can remember, they chanted:
You can do whatever you put your mind to!
There are no limits to what you can do or be!
You are capable of anything!
Granted, these were embellished with post-scripts, the type of which only the pragmatism of a Midwestern father and immigrant mother can bestow:
… If you work hard enough.
In my infantile glory, I dreamed of breathtaking possibilities. I’d read about the moon and fixate on the astronauts. I’d read about the brain and ponder life as a neurosurgeon. I’d read about civics and imagine running for office. My parents stoked the fire of my curiosity, and while my brother and I never had expensive clothing, we had an abundance of books and paper and pencils.
I ended up pursuing art. Maybe it was all those paper and pencils. I knew what artists were, but in my tiny bubble of a world — where I scaled every imaginary mountain — I had no clue as to what being an artist entailed. After a rigorous education, I began my life as a living, working, breathing artist. That staggering transition was full of post-Recession challenges and replete with the panic of looming bills.
Suddenly my bubble became a deflated balloon. I felt my life even made the comical, whining sound balloons make in old cartoons as they’re popped and wither away. Being an artist, I learned, isn’t easy.
When I was in graduate school, I never thought to take classes with the most politically connected professors. After graduating, I never thought to use my body to sell art. I never thought to produce only commercially lucrative artwork. I never thought to marry a doctor, lawyer, or banker. I married another artist and tried to answer emails promptly.
The words repeated to me as a little girl now rang hollow. I had imbued their optimism, but only to later reason that they seemed more like empty holes concealed by the veil of childhood innocence. I deduced that they were meant for luckier, wealthier people. Certainly not for me.
It was like the adult version of finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real. The sad thing is that, even as a kid, you know that Christmas morning will come regardless. Years later, I didn’t expect any metaphorical present under the tree.
But that only shows how little I knew.
I’d forgotten all about that second part, that post-script my parents always added. I’d only focused on the first half of those mantras. I was oblivious to just how doggedly I’d kept working before, during, and after that time.
… But it won’t be easy.
… But you can’t give up.
… And it will take time.
Things turned around, as they are wont to do. Many aspects of my life are stable now, and, crucially, I don’t feel entitled to that stability. Things are sound enough that my husband and I can contemplate our next chapter. Things are predictable enough that we can now stand on a ledge and risk a wondrous leap. The gargantuan risk of failure — if we leap and land broken — is overtaken by the self-respect and autonomy we’ve committed to pursuing. A mixture of naïveté and guts led us to take this scintillating, terrifying chance.
Despite the nerves and nausea inherent in any major change, I remember what my parents told me so long ago. I know now that their words were never misleading. Their words’ simplicity only belied their magnitude. Without hearing them, I’d never have tried. And if I hadn’t tried, I wouldn’t know that little girls really can grow up to become astronauts, or surgeons, or senators. Or artists.
And now, I’m surrounding myself with these words, because we’re about to start over again all these years and experiences and lessons later:
You can create the life you want.
You can do anything.
… And you will survive the journey.
Even though I stopped believing those words for a while, my parents never stopped repeating them to me. Those words — which I once felt had failed me — are now what propel us forward and give us the courage to approach the ledge. With my husband by my side and my parents’ words in my ears, we will leap.
We will leap. And we will survive the journey.
The Fallacy & Faith of Encouragement
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