I want to talk about how finding out what motivates you can lead to personal liberation. To do that, I will take you back to my junior year of college. I was something of a fresh-faced know-it-all with something to prove. I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of a future career. For most of my life, since the age of 4, I was certain that I was going to be a doctor, but then I discovered the theatre. Yeah, that old cliché.
So, I did what many confused perfectionists do. I went to college and hit it hard. My entire identity became about doing well in college. Learning, of course. That was my priority, but I could not do poorly in anything. I had to receives As on everything. In my mind, I was proving my parents wrong about me. What I didn’t have the insight into then was that I was building an identity around performance and actually fortifying the very lies that I was trying to disprove. My worth became proportionate to my professor’s evaluations of me. I entered college a perfectionist. I became a superperfectionist during college. Every mistake I made grated on me and drove me harder. I studied all the time. I lacked a social life, and that seemed justifiable to me. I was building a foundation for a future career path–whatever that would be.
The results of these painstaking efforts were inclusion on the Deans’ lists of the colleges I attended, scholarships, and recognition, but I hated it. I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. What if I failed? The anxiety grew greater the higher I climbed, and my personality had become distorted. When I look back, I see someone whom I would not like today. I was one of those intellectual snobs who would metaphorically wear black turtlenecks and chain smoke at cafés at midnight while discussing the merits of the intellectual movement in Europe vis-à-vis the developing social pragmatism of America.
Then art history happened. For some ridiculous reason, a medievalist at one of my colleges pushed me in the direction of art history. It made sense. My grandfather is a landscape artist in his country of origin, and my grandmother was an artist as well. I had the language background for it, and I met the intellectual snob criteria for graduate level courses. Perfect.
That is when I met the Flemish Professor. He was a brilliant man and teacher. He made art history seem accessible and easy. Suddenly, I could see art history as a viable career. I took all of his courses–medieval art history. There were, like, six. We got to know each other. We had a good collegiate relationship. It was during the end of my junior year that he suggested I take his graduate course on the cathedrals of Europe. To me, at that time, this was a coup not to mention a fascinating course of study. It was in this class that he handed me the topic for my art history thesis.
If you find yourself asking what the heck a Catalonian retable is, then you’re not alone. That was my response as well except with more colorful language. This is a retable in case you’re wondering:
This was a thesis based on research. Well, the only access I had to Catalonian retables was through large, cumbersome books. Two large, cumbersome books. Both of them in German. For some reason, the Flemish Professor thought that I spoke German because I told him that I got bored while living in France and took an introduction to German at The Goethe Institute. I left being able to count, conjugate, and perhaps order a beer, a piece of cheese or a piece of cake. I would confuse the two. In other words, I would do really well at Oktoberfest.
The only other published research in the entire world at the time was one French article. That’s it. Two German book and one French article. The Flemish Professor ask for a 10-page “thesis” about Catalonian retables based on this? I gave him a 13-page paper, and I used all three sources. The only three sources on Catalonian retables in the world at the time. That’s how obscure the topic was. He checked off on my outline and bibliography.
Do you know what this professor gave me for a grade? Hold on…
A C. A C!!!!! I died on the inside. I took that paper and marched into his office. I put it on his desk and demanded an explanation. Something I have never done before, but I felt he owed me that particularly since he signed off on every aspect of it. We went head to head. The sources were incomplete he said. There were only three I said. In the world. It wasn’t long enough he said. He asked for 10 pages I said. I gave him 13 which was a miracle. Why didn’t I use more of the German material he asked? I don’t speak German I said. I countered him on every criticism. He had nothing to stand on.
“The grade stands. There was a misunderstanding.”
And then he crossed his arms and made something akin to a pouting harumphing noise. Politics?! Was this my ego coming up against his far more established ego? What? I was incredulous. How was I supposed to live with this? Dear God! A C in the class? I went home and had an existential crisis. Who was I? If I got a C, then what? Maybe I really was stupid after all. Maybe my parents were right. Maybe I just hit the ceiling of my abilities in the academy. Maybe I peaked. Maybe…maybe…maybe…maybe…
This all sounds ridiculous. I know that, but when we think about the things that set us off on any given day it isn’t so unreasonable. I know what caused this crisis. I started college two weeks after I escaped trafficking. That blows my mind when I really ponder that. I went from being a sex slave to a co-ed in two weeks. I compartmentalized everything. I threw myself into academics and performing, and I found out that I was good at it. My whole world rose and set on earning high marks in everything, and it fell apart when I didn’t. I didn’t know who I was apart from performing–performing perfectly. From being perfect. This core belief somehow protected me from ever having to deal with what caused me to develop that maladaptive strategy. Underneath my consistent efforts to climb higher and be the best festered a toxic mélange of self-loathing, terror, and despair. If I wasn’t good in the academy, then I wasn’t going to be good anywhere. It was my last hope, or so I thought. The Flemish Professor ripped me apart when he gave me that C.
And it was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it forced a reckoning. I hated who I had become. I didn’t enjoy the hoop jumping, politics, and ass-kissing that I had to do at university. I hated the esoteric and seemingly useless topics of study. Catalonian retables? That’s not going to cure the world of its ills. Furthermore, I realized that I wasn’t actually studying because I liked it. I had lost my integrity. I had become a divided person–a dis-integrated person. Maybe I always had been. I didn’t even know.
Receiving that C, as small a thing as it is in the grand purpose of life, was a catalyst for immense growth. I stopped and reconsidered my path and my purpose. I made life changes after that class that changed the course of my life for good. I also realized that if I was going to do something with my life that mattered to me, then it need be because I’m invested in it for reasons that resonate with my character and who I desire to be rather than proving a point to people who actually don’t care about what happens to me now or in the future. The past should not corrupt the present nor my future.
That was two decades ago. Ironically, that C was the best grade I ever got.
All this is to say that you may have had or are currently having experiences that ignite you in ways you never expected. Your brain and heart may be on fire with existential despair or desolation. You may be up against something that is breaking your brain. Or perhaps your identity is on the line in a way that you never expected. After dealing with recovery from profound trauma for almost three decades, I can safely estimate now that these kinds of experiences can be some of the most useful for emancipating us from ourselves and prisons of our making. Most often, we did not create our cells, but we have a strange gift for keeping ourselves locked inside them through our self-judgment, personal and secret vows, self-loathing, need for vengeance, and constant comparisons between ourselves and others, and ourselves from the past, present, and future through these words, “I didn’t expect that my life would look like this at this age.”
There is no easy way to make a new key for an old prison, but what I have learned is that it all starts with questions. And, the first question is usually, “What would happen if I tried ____________?” Rethinking our present requires imagination and willingness. It also requires giving up our fear of pain. It will hurt emotionally and spiritually to integrate, but it hurts more to remain compartmentalized. This I know from experience.
These are my observations as I continue to walk the road of attempting to live an integrated life. May your entry into the forthcoming holidays bring you peace, merriment, and a deep sense of joy.
As always, keep going.