I spoke with my best friend’s son this afternoon. He wants to know when I can help him build a black hole. There wasn’t a question of if I can help him build a black hole; he only wants to know when I can do it.
The plans kids concoct for their lives are amazing. The fact that they actually come true on occasion is even more amazing.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to send me to visit Hazel, an elderly neighbor. Looking at it now, I’m sure my mom was killing two birds with one stone: keeping me out of her hair so she could watch my baby sister while supplying much-needed company for Hazel in the process.
When it was time to go to Hazel’s, I cringed. I wanted to spend summer running through the sprinklers like other kids. During our visits, I grew to love being with Hazel, though. We didn’t do much; we just held hands, sat in front of the picture window and looked at birds.
On every single visit she would say, “Life starts out a caterpillar and ends up a butterfly.” I didn’t know quite she meant, but I decided to take her word for it.
Hazel asked me what I wanted to do with my life. That’s a pretty heady conversation for a five-year-old to entertain. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to articulate my life’s mission, but here’s what I knew but couldn’t put words around: for the rest of my life I wanted to feel the way I felt each time I left Hazel’s house.
I wanted to feel deeply connected to people and like I had made a difference in their life in some way.
As I grew older, I decided the best way to fulfill my mission would be to do it on a grand scale, so I left my family’s small town mountain ranch and set off into the world to “make it.”
Fate stepped in: on my nineteenth birthday, I was abducted by a couple of men while traveling in France. They beat me, raped me and dumped me in a park.
I was hurt, physically, mentally, and emotionally, but deeper than that I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I had been foolish enough to go with them in the first place. I felt dirty and ruined, and I decided never to tell anyone what happened, or they would know what was wrong with me.
Understandably, given that decision, I began to withdraw from people. My life’s mission now became holding it together and not letting anyone see the mess I felt on the inside.
The irony was I didn’t seem alone in that mission.
The closer I looked, the more it seemed like other people, too, were embarrassed or ashamed of some part of themselves or their past. It occurred that we all were trying to highlight things about ourselves that we thought made us look good, all the while downplaying what we believed was wrong with us.
Finally something paradoxical happened which broke that cycle; I decided to let my guard down with someone. I was volunteering with elderly people at the time.
One afternoon as I sat with Dorothy, I decided to just speak authentically when she asked what was happening in my life. So, instead of giving Dorothy my usual, “I’ve got it together,” baloney, I told her the truth. I was suddenly free.
The magic was, so was Dorothy. She confided in me things that she never had previously; we connected in a profound way unlike ever before.
Somehow on my journey back, I realized that all of the things that I thought were wrong with me—the things I prayed no one would ever find out—were the very things that allowed people to connect with me.
What I’ve learned is it’s not only our “good parts” that make us interesting; it’s not just the shiny, polished-up places in our lives.
What people can relate to is someone who knows their pain as well as their joys and is not trying to hold it all together. We want to stand with someone who has gone through the fire—and would go through it with us again without running or flinching.
Ironically, I ended up becoming a public speaker not because I became somebody else, but because I was willing to fully be myself.
I was recently invited to deliver a TEDx Talk, which was an honor. People I have never met reached out to me after seeing my talk and humbled me by sharing their lives.
A 66-year-old woman said she’s finally going to stop being ashamed of herself for being a lesbian and come out to her family.
A woman whose face was disfigured in an accident said she now sees her uniqueness is beautiful.
Several women have admitted to me that they were raped and have never told anyone.
Despite my childhood mission, life had other plans for me. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The heart of the mission I set out to accomplish got fulfilled; it just didn’t happen in the nice, pretty, wrapped-in-a-bow way I’d hoped for.
I suppose Hazel was right after all. Life starts out a caterpillar and ends up a butterfly.