WOW | Life Inspiration

The most common way people give up their power

how1My father, every now and then, recounts a story that took place when my sister and I were quite young. He tells of this episode at times when I need encouragement, when I get overwhelmed by circumstances, or when get stuck in a bubble of self doubt. I imagine that he tells it at times when he, too, needs reminding of the possibility for positive change, and his ability to affect it.

I must have been about six years old, and my sister eight. My parents, sister and I were spending the summer, as we did so often, at my maternal grandparents’ home in the Northeast of the U.S. My grandfather was a physician. An old fashioned southerner, he was authoritarian, steadfast and kind hearted. My grandmother was a housewife. The mother of six and active member of the community, she was indisputably the Matriarch, deeply loved and respected by all.

As the story goes, we were all dining together at the long wooden table in the kitchen. My sister and I must have been babbling on – as children do – about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My father recounts that our grandparents then instructed us that when we were older our role and duty would be to champion our husbands – to manage the home, attend to the children and do what it took so that our men might achieve their ambitions. This is what my grandparents had taught their five daughters, who had done so diligently, after completing their studies.

At the end of the meal my father excused himself and took my sister and me into our room. He sat down with us and told his daughters, his only children, the following: “ You, my precious ones, can be anything that you want to be. Your role is to be you and to follow your dreams. Your duty is to make a life for yourself that brings joy to you and all whom you touch. If you want to get married you can. If you do not want to, you do not have to. You are intelligent, beautiful, kind and talented. You can be and do anything you put your mind and heart to. Have courage, and be humble.”

In all honesty I do not have a clear how1recollection that these were his exact words. But I know without doubt that his message was such, for it is what he has told us our entire lives. And it is what he continues to tell us now, more than 30 years on. My father not only delivered a message of possibility and opportunity; he did everything in his power to create the setting in which my sister and I could emancipate ourselves from what had, until then, been expected of women in our family and society at large.

You might think that this behaviour would be normal for a Western man. Perhaps now, but it was not always so. My sister and I were born in the middle of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S. My father was one of three boys who had grown up in a military family in the 1950s. Without sisters, his insight into women came from his mother- a brilliant and witty woman who, as was expected of the times placed her aspirations second to those of the men around her. With her husband often off on missions, the majority of the leadership of the household and raising of their sons was left to her. It is testimony to her spirit and leadership, that she raised three boys who became kind hearted, educated, open minded, visionary men; men, who each, in their own way, have championed the rights of those who were oppressed or less fortunate.

I tell this story for several reasons. It reminds me of how very fortunate I have been to be raised by parents who believed in their daughters and encouraged them to believe in themselves; how fortunate I was to be raised in a culture that was ripe for change. It also inspires me to continue to be an agent of positive change, to encourage and support, in the ways that I can, those with whom I come into contact.

More than anything, this story reminds me of the power we have to change, one person and one generation at a time. As author Alice Walker so eloquently stated: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. To believe that we have no power to create positive change as an individual is the biggest lie we tell ourselves, or are told by others. All change, all transformation, begins within ourselves. We are each capable of it. We are each called to it, continuously, throughout our lives. And we can either resist change, or follow its calling. The choice is ours.

Transformation begins with a vision. It is carried through by continuous effort, perseverance and willpower. It is fostered by calling on – and accepting constructive collaboration. And it is propelled by faith. Faith in the process of change. And faith in ourselves. Thinking about the change we want is the first step. This, almost always, arises out of a situation of discomfort: we do not like what we see, we do not like the way we are treated, we witness or experience suffering. Contrast (what is not wanted) is that which wakes us up. It has within it a huge potential – to propel us forward, and inspire us to envision something different for ourselves or our community.

how2And herein, lies the turning point. Hardship, discrimination, oppression, abuse–these can either become our trampoline or our quicksand. Either we use them as something to move away from, to push off from, and towards that which is better. Or we get stuck in them. The ways in which we do this are by becoming numb, “accepting our fate”, by lamenting, complaining and/ or blaming other people or circumstances for our situation. While these might burn off some steam or make us feel validated in our suffering, they keep us chasing our tails.

And while thinking about change is the first step, it is not enough to make it happen. It takes “showing up”. It requires action in small, consistent ways more than big ones. Without effort, without taking the steps to put our aspirations into action, nothing happens. As we act on our vision, especially if we are moving against age old beliefs, we will encounter opposition– whether it is by those who are enjoying a position of power in the situation, or by those who are stuck in the quicksand. Give thanks to them and carry on. Do not get stuck with them. Do not be fooled by what they say. Understand what they say and do for what it is: where they are. Use their actions or rhetoric to strengthen your resolve. Gather your resources, rally your support, harness your courage, clarify your vision, and move forward.

There is not one successful person, nor leader, I have met– man, woman, other gendered– who has not encountered hardship, repeated “failure”, or opposition. They persevered, found comradeship amongst like-minded individuals, and learned to believe and trust in themselves.

As one year comes to a close and another begins, I wish you the courage, strength and faith to transform yourselves and your lives for the better. Think big, wish deeply.