Recently, I was at a performance by Jesse Cook, the famed guitarist from Canada whose skills cross different musical genres. Before he and his group played a piece entitled Once (available for online listening), he asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine a place where they have been many times, walking on the same road again and again. He said: You know the road. You have been there more than once.” I later learned he wrote Once as he reflected on his childhood home in Aveyron, France; it was a place he had not visited in years but he had certainly been there once. And it was a place that influenced him throughout his life — he kept going there in his mind until he actually went back there in person.
I am in the process of finishing a memoir by Emi Nietfeld titled Acceptance. It is the heart-wrenching story of her growing up with a mother who was a hoarder. She lived in foster homes, was homeless for periods of time and eventually set off to college (Harvard) at age 17 after spending time at a boarding school and backpacking across Europe. At various times she struggled with her mental health including eating disorders and self-cutting. And she was raped.
All Emi wanted was acceptance — in a home, in a family, in a college, in a relationship, in friendships. Yet, everywhere she went, despite growing acceptance from the outside world (prizes for her writing certainly helped as did an amazing therapist and social worker), she didn’t feel accepted. She couldn’t find where she fit. In short, that was because she hadn’t accepted herself. Not once.
And so, between the concert and the memoir, I have been thinking about how we often seek to find acceptance through outside credentials (awards; prizes; money; college and graduate school acceptance) or through relationships with friends or lovers or mentors or educators. We don’t often and deliberately do what Jesse Cook did — walk down a road alone that allows to see who we are and where we are from and what makes us what we are. For him, that was a region of France and a home made of stone.
In a world like ours where outside accolades are omnipresent and feedback is plentiful online and elsewhere, we mistake those accolades for internal and deeply personal acceptance. And we hear the rejections as evidence that we are not good enough — yet. And, if we don’t find acceptance inward, we keep looking for and seeking more accolades or more money or more outside admiration or acknowledgement. In other words, we are on a never ending quest that lasts a lifetime if we continue to seek acceptance from outside ourselves. We keep climbing some invisible hill, not stopping to see what we have accomplished as we climb.
This all ties into how I think as an educator. I think we need to help students accept themselves and be evaluated not by external norms all the time. Test scores; grades. We need for them to appreciate progress and process and self-understanding. We don’t need to shower them with gold stars and trophies. We need, instead, to help students do what Jesse Cook did — find were he was from and own it. We need to shower them with self-confidence that is home-grown so to speak.
There is a general sense that finding self-acceptance is easier as we age. Society has deemed us “finished” in terms of career heights long before we are ready to receive social security. So, we should be able, it seems, to accept where we are in life — when there is more life behind us than ahead of us. It is in our old age, supposedly, that we can find acceptance — finally. That said, I’m not so sure self-acceptance is a given when one is “old” and I don’t think one needs to wait to be “old” to engage in finding that acceptance.
It is in this context of being “old” personally and at the age and stage to be self-accepting that I was recently asked to reflect on how my career started, an effort by an organization to tap into their senior members’ history. While I said I’d write something, I didn’t particularly like the assignment.
For starters, I object to the word “senior.” It is not that I deny my age; it is that the term seems somewhat off-putting to me. Next, I think people expected a linear story: I did this and then that, which led to this, and then to that. But linear is not how life works, at least not my life. Instead, I think for me and others, life happens and we make choices and we live with what streets we did not inhabit. Lastly, how I began my career is hardly the story to tell. The story that matters is still ongoing: it is the story of self-understanding, of deciding what truly matters, of insuring that I leave this world better than I found it.
In short, the piece on my past (which will no doubt be published in some compilation somewhere), made me reflect on the present and the future — not the past. It made me think about Once and acceptance. I suppose in that sense, while not intended, the assignment of how my career started placed me on a different road than the one intended by the assignment. Instead of entrenching me in the past, it moved me forward.
And that leads me to ask this: Might we all want to reflect on those places that fit within Once and ponder acceptance in all its internal dimensions? That doesn’t happen only when one is old; it should happen throughout life …. if we live it with intention and with perspective and with introspection. Yes, it’s hard …. but old age doesn’t make that Once journey to acceptance easy or easier. It is a question with which we need to wrestle throughout our lives, making progress as we go. Old or young, it is not too late. Once…….