Fantasy vs. reality

Ever since I was a young child, I’ve had a very rich fantasy life. Back then, I was easily able to imagine that I was Scarlett O’Hara merely by wearing a makeshift hoop skirt. It didn’t matter that I was surrounded by appliances, cars and buses, and every other facet of modern life. As long as I was wearing my costume, I was back at the plantation, going to balls and swooning in the heat. And, I fully believed that everyone else was right there with me.

As a teenager, although I gave up the external costumes, I often lived out fantasies in my own alternate universe, practicing for what could be. At that point, I was aware enough that the fantasies were mine alone but the fact remained that an unlived triumph or relationship was still as satisfying to me as the real thing.

By the time I was an adult I had lived many lives and was prepared, through sheer diligence of mental practice for a multitude of situations. But, I finally realized that my fantasies were sometimes getting in the way of reality, often causing me to miss or bypass exploring opportunities and relationships that life was offering me.

Recently, I was confronted by an old boyfriend who popped up in my life. I had been looking for him for over nine years and, by a fluke of fate, unexpectedly tracked him down. After talking with him for some time, and finding that he had also been looking for me and wondering all these years, I easily switched back into fantasy mode, imagining the possibility of a life together rich with babies, joy, and laughter.

As I laughingly told this to a friend, I realized that the difference between my current fantasy world and that of the past is that I’m now wise enough to know that it’s a fantasy and to enjoy it for what it is without letting it interfere with the evolution of my real life. And, that if I’m interested enough, I’ll have to take steps to explore its potential in reality, open to the possibilities that might be there or the closure to an old story that is carrying the tentacles of my past.

Thinking about my son, who at the age of three is starting to have a rich life of imaginary play, I’m struck by how important it is to foster his imagination, nurturing the environment that he lives in so that he can grow accustomed to living in various fantasies, trying on and discarding various roles that he is interested in so that he can see potential in different situations and practice his abilities in a low risk environment. Equally true, is the importance of teaching him to know the difference between fantasy and reality so that he is able to take comfort in the safety of his mind while easily grasping and walking through the inviting doors of a rich and varied life.

Being your own true self

Like most kids, when I was young I was just me. And, quite frequently, between the time that I awoke and the time that I went to bed, my own true self went through quite a few metamorphoses.

Sometimes I was an introvert, reading and dreaming for hours on end, content to be in a world full of endless unimaginable possibilities.

Other times I was extroverted, charming the adults around me, entertaining them with my wild costumes depicting my imaginings of who I was or desired to be in that particular moment, orchestrating performances that my friends and I would put on at preset times, or planning wild adventures and escapades that my friends and I could carry out in the safety of our neighborhood. And it was in these moments that I was able to lose myself and be as outrageous and fully myself as I could imagine.

As I grew older, went to school and entered conventional social relationships, the imperative to conform and fit in started to enter into the equation. Overwhelmingly, the message that I received was make yourself smaller, be inconspicuous, fit in.

Over time, this message sank in. In spite of my many teenage antics, by the time I was in my mid-twenties I was more ‘normal’, operating successfully within well-established social boundaries. By the time I hit thirty, I was an outward success: I had a successful consulting practice, was married, a homeowner, gave frequent dinner parties for my many friends and family, and was well on my way towards building a family of my own. And I was completely miserable.

Slowly, it dawned on me that throughout all of my endeavors to fit in and create the perfect life I had lost my own self. One by one, out of a desire to make others around me feel more comfortable, I had shut the doors to the rooms that allowed me to have a rich inner life and opened the possibility of being more than I already was.

When my marriage ended and I had to step outside of the known boundaries that I had carefully created for myself, I suddenly found the keys to some of my inner rooms that I had forgotten existed. As I opened the doors and explored their landscape as if visiting an exotic land for the first time, trying on various treasures that I came across, I realized that fitting in is not all its cracked up to be.

And, to my surprise, I found that being true to my self had its own rewards. Suddenly, I hit my stride. People appreciated me for me, not only silently accepting me for who I was but demanding that I allow my full talents and personality to emerge. In effect, encouraging me to be the person that they knew I could be.

As a parent, I find myself constantly struggling to avoid shaping my son into the image of who I think he should be. The overwhelming message that I want my son to absorb is that, as long as he is not harming another, he can be whoever he wants and that dreams don’t merely belong to the realm of fantasy. And so, I try to stand back, remove the obstacles that lie in his path to clear the way so that he can become the full version of who he is meant to be. By encouraging him to play large, meet the challenges of his own desires, and explore the rooms to his own inner mansion, I hope to one day be pleasantly surprised when he becomes something more than even I could have dared to imagine.

Self-efficacy

After I split up with my husband and found myself to be a single mom solely responsible for a boy that had just turned one, I couldn’t help but reflect on where I had gone wrong. I constantly thought about how I could have made the mistake of marrying someone who couldn’t go the distance and take the final, irrevocable step into adulthood. While there were indications along the way that my husband was more of a dreamer than a finisher, it never occurred to me that he would be incapable of stepping into the role of father, caregiver, and provider.

Hiking around a desolate lake on Vancouver Island months later, as I ascended and descended the rugged terrain that was quietly in bloom with the promise of spring, I silently reflected on my new lover and his potential. And, in that moment, it occurred to me that while some people have many obvious talents, skills, and aptitudes, it is the rare person who has a strong sense of self-efficacy.

When I ran this thought by my cousin, she asked me what I meant by this. In trying to disentangle the jumble of my thoughts, I explained that, for me, it meant not only the ability to dream in Technicolor but the ability to believe that you can and, if you choose to engage, that you will effect the outcome you dream.

As I warmed up to my explanation, I asked her why it is that there are people like Jim Carey, who believe so strongly in the future that they want for themselves, that they are able to write a check to themselves for $20 million dollars, knowing, with certainty, that they will one day be able to cash it. Or, on a smaller scale, the infinite number of people who set a life vision or goal for themselves, and systematically go about accomplishing it, regardless of the setbacks that they encounter along the way.

I believe that what makes these people different is their ability to envision a future world that they, themselves, want to live in and place the full power of their intention behind their unique set of energies, creativity, and human potential to make it happen.

Although I myself came from a uniquely bizarre family constellation, often exposed to and forced to deal with uncomfortable and inappropriate situations from a young age onwards, the one thing that I never doubted was my ability to accomplish something that I resolutely set my mind to. My parents were always firmly in my corner, believing in me and my power to create whatever I could envision. As a parent, I believe that if I can pass this sense of control over one’s destiny on to my son, I will leave him an important and long-lasting legacy, enabling him to embrace the beauty of the present while tapping into his talents, develop himself, and create the Technicolor world in which he wants to live.

Being in the moment

Often, when I’m hanging out at the park with my son we’re with other parents and their children. Inevitably, as the kids play, we comment on their natures and, invariably, based on the characteristics displayed in that particular moment, someone starts to make predictions about what each one will be when they grow up.

Watching my son play in the sandbox at the park, I marvel at the fact that he can spend hours moving sand from pail to pail, enthralled with the possibilities that each grain presents, as if each movement were truly a depiction of the sands of time. And it strikes me that this is not the only activity in which he is capable of completely immersing himself, wholly absorbed as if nothing else exists in the world. For him, unlike us grownups, there is no past and future, only the here and now.

Reflecting on this, I’m reminded of a poster that I had on my wall as a child that stated “Happiness is as a butterfly, which if pursued is just beyond your grasp but if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Although I must have read this particular poem countless times each night for numerous years and could recite it off the top of my head, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to absorb its message.

Now, on quiet spring evenings when I sit on my back patio sipping wine while watching my plants enjoy each stage of their growth, I marvel at how in their stillness they’re actually morphing into the shape they’re destined to be. And I think about how, for myself, it’s now the moment that’s precious instead of the end destination. Be it moments of pure happiness, utter dejection, wild abandon and elation, or mere indifference, I’ve finally come to the realization that it’s only by experiencing the process of life in all its incarnations that I’ll be able to grow and evolve. And with this realization has come the freedom from trying to capture the future by trying to take care of every eventually through preemptively forcing things into nice little boxes that can be neatly categorized. By being in the moment, I now find myself more open to doors in the present that I would not have noticed at an earlier time, bypassing them as a result of assumptions that they are irrelevant to future that I’m supposed to have.

This change has been in large part as a result of being a parent, and I know that I’m forever indebted to my son for teaching me this valuable lesson. I also know that as a parent, one of the ways that I can repay my son is by helping him to hold on to this gift of being in the moment so that as he grows into adulthood, not only does he evolve into who he is destined to be but he enjoys all of the individual moments that make up the journey, treasuring the magic of each unreplicable experience while exploring the possibility that each presents.

A special talent

Years ago, when I was in grad school, I used to be a night owl. Routinely, my friends and I would go to bars, drink, stay up late, and, throughout it all, yak it up, talking about nothing and everything under the sun. The world was still new to us and we were trying to find our place in it.

One night, at my neighbour’s house, over a drink that lasted until the early morning hours, he asked me what my special talent was. Stupefied by the question, I asked him what he meant. As an explanation, he told me that everyone has a special talent. While some people have an obvious talent, like juggling eight balls at once or breathing fire, others have quieter talents like being able to ease over an uncomfortable silence with grace or make others shine in the most ordinary of situations.

At the time, I was unable to answer his question but, as testament to its power, it stayed with me for over a decade as I intermittently tried to wrestle an answer to it for myself. As I grew up and slowly found a place where I was comfortable in the world, I realized that I have several talents. Although none stand out, screaming to be noticed, they are my strengths and I now try to play to them, instead of focusing my energies on trying to mitigate my weaknesses.

Recently, I read an article about how most organizations and people try to fix their ‘deficiencies’, focusing most of their efforts on this endeavour while taking their strengths and assets for granted in their efforts to succeed. Looking at this from a flip side, I wondered what the world would be like if people worked on their weaknesses while accepting them for what they are, and played to their strengths and talents instead. In imagining such a world, I can’t help but think that it would be a richer, kinder and happier place where people are more tolerant of themselves and that which they fear in themselves but recognize in others.

Looking at my son, I sometimes notice how he is hesitant to try things that he can’t do perfectly the first time, fearing that just doing it isn’t good enough. And, I sometimes worry that his innate desire to succeed at everything while knowing that he can’t will cause him to close off doors before they’ve fully opened out of a fear of failing that’s derived from his own unarticulated assumptions of what he ‘should’ be able to do.

As a parent watching these silent moments unfold, I remind myself that my job is to encourage my son to try different experiences, to persevere in the face of disappointment at his own lack of success, and, in the end, to recognize when to close a door and focus his energy on opening others and work on ones that are already ajar. For I hope that by trying different experiences his world will be enriched, both by an appreciation of what others are capable of and a development of self through the often unexpected moments in which he finds himself able to do something he himself previously labelled as impossible. Equally true, though, is the reality that I know: by accepting his own limitation and capitalizing on his strengths while developing his covert and overt talents he will be more successful and happier with himself wherever he finds himself in the world while being appreciative of the varied and complementary gifts that others can offer.