THE INALIENABLE RIGHT OF SELF-EXPRESSION
Let others see your thoughts. Let others read your soul. Let other people feel the singular starbursts of emotional experience that have pulsed up and down your insides over the years, making you who you are—making your idiosyncratic life what it is. Find a way to speak to the world. Find a way to make me understand you. Paint a portrait of yourself so that you will never be forgotten. Find a way to express yourself before you lose yourself.
Self-expression: Has that gotten easier as you’ve gotten older, or have you felt your inner voice slowly burrowing into a place of retreat as you’ve passed some of the traditional landmarks of life. Maybe your inner voice has become a little blander or a lot meeker as you’ve walked like a wide-eyed time traveler through the experiences of college graduation, marriage, children, the Big Four O, the existential confusion of middle age, or the practical confusion of retirement.
Common sense and conventional wisdom would say that our inner voices—those irrepressible affirmations of self—should get clearer and louder as we rack up years of life experience, but I know the opposite to be true at times. I know that life’s complex experiences can sometimes leave a person confused instead of confident. I know that years of being alternately stroked and pummeled by this complicated existence can leave a person hurting rather that invigorated, whimpering instead of shouting.
Over the course of my own thirty-eight years of living, I’ve personally gone through hills and valleys when it comes to the ability to express myself. But even when I’m crawling on my belly through one of those quiet valleys—even when I can barely muster up enough audacity to believe that my inner voice is worthy of being spoken out loud so that someone else might hear it—the DESIRE to be heard by others has never left me, and that’s how I know that even the stillest, the sickest, and the most stone-faced among us have volcanic pits of emotion and creativity burning inside of them and begging to be erupted onto the outside world (i.e., the people around them).
Everyone longs to be understood. Everyone has unique stories and inimitable voices humming through their fragile bones as they pass through day after day of racking up life experiences. More people simply need to believe that their personal experiences constitute an important narrative and not just some unimpressive example of uninspired happenings.
To state my point like Fred Rogers might: More people simply need to believe that they are special.
When I was younger I believed I was quite special. My mother always gave me the impression that God had granted me great talents in order that I might do great things (an impression that every mother worth her title should give her children, by the way), and who was I to question
such a flattering notion. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line other people questioned that notion for me. And slowly I started to believe them.
Slowly I started to believe that my life might be an utterly common series of predictable failings and unnoteworthy heartaches.
Slowly I started to believe that self-expression and self-confidence were luxuries reserved for a privileged class of super humans—a class that included politicians, celebrities, those in positions of church authority, and those who held authority in the workplace—but not things that were meant for me.
Maybe I was from a different class of people, I worried, a class without permission to speak or a class without anything much to say.
As it turns out, I do have a lot to say. I just needed my own permission to speak.
Have you given yourself permission to speak yet? I am now certain that I have stories and struggles inside of me that are worthy of being reconstructed for the benefit of both myself and others, and I know that you do, too.
On any given morning I could probably drive to any given city and interview a randomly assigned stranger to find a gut-punching story about unique aspirations, unique victories, and unique heartaches. Most everyone within a thousand miles of me could probably enthrall me with a memoir about ten thousand unbelievable days and nights spent living as themselves.
But would all of those people believe that they have such a story in them? Would they all be able to express themselves so that the rest of the world could laugh and cry at the appropriate moments during their stories? That might be another matter.
Telling one’s own story or even small pieces of it—believing in the validity of one’s own emotional experiences—is something that requires a strong measure of belief in self, and not everyone is currently at a point where they can muster such necessary belief. I know something about such a failure to muster confidence, because I spent a good number of years in a place where I was doubting myself instead of expressing myself.
Thankfully that doubting place is starting to become little more than a puzzling but important landmark in my rearview mirror. It hasn’t fully descended beneath the horizon yet, but it’s on its way.
Slowly I’m beginning to believe in myself more fully again. Slowly I’m beginning to wake up most days once again believing that self-expression is a right and not a privilege.
And I know that when I fully regain the ability to speak up for myself and my experiences—when I am finally able to, as they say, completely own my life story—then that is most likely when my greatest writing will occur. And my greatest living.
Have you owned your life story yet? Do you believe that the painful experiences you’ve endured over the years have been valuable tattoos of the soul and not just some deserved punishment for personal failings?
Do you currently have an Amazon of repressed self-expression flowing through the back alleys of your heart? Are you currently holding onto an ocean of opinions, observations, and emotions that need to be rained into the outside world before something important inside of you dries up into a lump of immovable bitterness or depression?
If you’ve been feeling particularly powerless lately—if you’ve been stumbling around without much respect for your own voice lately—my advice to you is this: Start finding more ways of expressing yourself to the outside world (even if that means simply expressing yourself to just one or two people at first).
Start encouraging your inner voice instead of beating it down at the request of others. Start believing that your opinions, emotions, and creative longings have huge value. If you start finding ways to make the outside world understand what it means to be you, then you can reconnect with important parts of yourself—empowered parts of you that will allow you to create your days instead of always feeling resigned to them.
Starting today, try to express yourself more creatively, more honestly, and more consistently, and I’ll do the same. If we all do that, I’ll bet we’ll have the pleasure of discovering how unique we really are. And how reassuringly similar.