There are two stories my foster mum recounts from my childhood each time I see her. No matter how many times I hear those stories, it always feels like the first time, with me hanging onto every word she utters.
The first story is from when I was about 4, and I went with the family to see ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’. When the song ‘The beautiful briny sea’ came on, I burst into song. Not only did I sing, but sang loudly in the crowded cinema. My foster brother told me to keep quiet, as I was disturbing people, to which I responded firmly, ‘no, I know the words and I am going to sing along’. And so I continued singing.
The other story occurs when I was about 5. My foster mum was painting the front room. I stood there watching and eventually asked what she was doing. She said she was applying emulsion to the walls to get the room white, before then painting over it. My mum then left the room and some moments later, whilst in the kitchen she heard my brother say, ‘mum’s going to kill you’. A few seconds later, she also heard her husband say ‘mum’s going to kill you’. She then came into the room and discovered that I had covered my whole body and hair in white paint and was dancing round the room singing ‘I am a little white boy’.
It’s easy to get lost in the literal meaning of both stories, or simply think of them as cute, which I did for years. The first story could be interpreted as a child misbehaving socially and being called to order. The second story could easily be perceived as the impact of living the first five years of my childhood, with a white foster family living in Kent, England.
It was only when I heard the stories again this year that I finally understood how the essence from both stories have played a significant part in how I had lived my life. The essence at the heart of the first story was, ‘self-expression and being myself, regardless of what others thought’. And for the second story, the essence was, ‘conforming in order to feel a sense of belonging, conforming in order to feel a sense of I am okay’.
Up until recently, I had spent most of my life going down the path of the second story. For like my then 5-year old, I have grown up constantly aware that I was different in one way or another. That I did not fit into the majority; that collective society often labelled as ‘normal’. And along the way, I came to equate being different, with being flawed, broken and damaged. So how did I come to learn this? Well, it happened gradually, during the journey of growing up.
I remember the easter and summer vacations spent at my cousins between ages 7/8/9. Every evening at dinner, my aunt would tell me off for using my left hand to eat, as it was culturally unacceptable. Prior to that, I do not remember noticing that I was left-handed and therefore different from others. And so, I made attempts to conform by using my right hand; to no avail.
I remember developing really bad asthma when I was about 9 and having to be rushed into hospital on a number of occasions, well into my teens, by my mother. I remember being aware that I did not know anyone with this condition and seeing it as evidence that I was indeed different and therefore flawed.
I remember developing alopecia when I was 10, which meant that over a period of a few months, I lost all my body hair. I remember going through High School, bullied and ridiculed for being the different kid. And in my effort to conform and belong, I wore a cap for many years to cover my shame. During this period, my belief that being different, equated being flawed, grew even more.
As you can imagine, by the time I came to realize that I was not like the other kids in terms of my sexual orientation, I was a long way down the path of believing that ‘being different firmly equated damaged, broken and flawed’. For many years, that belief would come to drive my behavior and how I showed up in many life situations.
In reflecting on these two themes from my childhood, I am reminded of the Cherokee story of ‘The Wolves within’. The story goes:
A grandfather is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather replied, ‘the one you feed’.
What I have finally come to learn this year is that I too have two wolves inside me. The first wolf is all about – self-expression and being my authentic self. The second wolf is all about – conforming and hiding, in order to feel a sense of validation and acceptance.
Like the grandfather in the story, I too have come to learn that the wolf that wins, the wolf that runs my life, is the one that I feed. For many years, I had tried to silence, deny or kill, this wolf of conforming. In my blog post on ‘Family and the longing for authentic validation’, I talked about an old pattern of ‘validating the invalid’. What I now recognize, a few months down the line, is that this was a pattern, a wolf, that was there from a very early age – denying my true self, in order not to be different. What I have discovered this year is that, this wolf had been there from my childhood, and that it may never go away. I have now come to learn that in order to be myself, I do not have to make the wolf go away. All I need to do is simply be aware of it and be conscious when I am feeding it or hanging out with people, in places or situations that feed it.
This year has been pretty much about reconnecting with that 4-year old, who once burst out into song in a crowded cinema. That 4-year old, who did not care how he was perceived by others; all that really mattered to him in that moment, was to be his authentic self.
This year, as I have journeyed down this path of consciously feeding my wolf of self-expression, I found that I have had to let some friends and family go and some have indeed let me go too. Yet, what I have also discovered during this journey, is that amazing people are continuously coming into my life, people who welcome and encourage my wolf of self-expression and authenticity.
It’s been an exciting journey, a scary journey, and a challenging journey. And yet, it has also been and continues to be a journey worth taking.
Copyright © 2011 OutTales.