Freedom from labels

Sitting on my patio, drinking a glass of wine while listening to the rain fall like soft silver bullets of mercury against my protective nylon shell, I smell the scent of freshness and imagine that I can hear the greenery of my grass, flowers and fresh herbs pushing against the solid earth, trying to become the form that they are destined to be. And then I think of how humans, unlike other non-sentient beings, are mutable and unpredictable in countless ways.

As my mind drifts through time, through my past, present and future, my body reminds me that I have not done yoga in a week and I notice that not only my body but my mind misses the calming experience of engaging in a multitude of poses and postures that mimic the range of human complexity and emotions.

As I delve into this thought, I reflect on some of the various yogic poses. From child’s pose requiring a relaxed vulnerability and utter trust in the world not to harm, to warrior pose that requires a strength, alertness and all-consuming intention from which no one can take you unawares, through powerful pose which, if done right, allows you to be a pillar of strength from which others can draw support if needed, to eagle pose that creates a sense of freedom from gravity, as if one could soar forever above the clouds, defying the conventional laws of gravity with wonderment, and goddess pose in which you salute the simple beauty of life and the universe acknowledges and salutes your strength and inner beauty back, in an unspoken dialogue, to side plank that requires you to be rigid enough to  build on your strengths in order to achieve an unthinkable balance between a shimmering lightness and earth’s grounding pull, and happy baby pose in which there is overwhelming relief in just letting go and being in the moment without thought of before and after, simply releasing into the pleasure of the here and now. The ability to experience such emotional and physical intricacy within the simple time span of an hour seems remarkable.

As I think about my son, I realize that it is only remarkable for me, an adult who has internalized many of the oftentimes conflicting labels assigned by society and those who love me. My son, who is exploring the world, his place in it, his abilities, talents, interests, and everything that is new, wonderful, and undiscovered in the world, is free and accustomed to being who he is, whoever that may be in any given moment, while trying on and exercising different parts of himself.

It hits me then that the thing that marks me as different from my son is that he has not yet realized that labels pigeonholing and limiting him can be assigned and unwittingly integrated into his perception of self, narrowing who he can envision himself as and circumscribing the world in which he operates. And I suddenly realize that, as a parent, one of the biggest gifts I can give my son is the ever-present awareness that the most remarkable aspect of being human is the ability to choose: that who we are at any given moment is not defining and that we always have the ability to use what we know of ourselves, our strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, desires, and talents, to become the god or goddess of life that we know lies at our core.

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.