For most of my life I’ve been a rule-follower. I am really good at figuring out what’s expected and then never disappointing.
Especially true in school, I transitioned from smiley-faces at the top of my papers to 100%’s and straight A’s. Though I’ll take some credit for being smart and doing the work, I am also aware that at least a portion of good results was because I was willing, able, and highly committed to complying. Nothing other would have ever crossed my mind.
The day in class that I shakily-but-firmly said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” shocked me more than anyone else in the room.
I was 40, in my Master’s degree program, and listening to an in-class discussion about when the Judges ruled the Israelites. One of the stories told was of Samuel: a boy who grew up in the house of priest and heard the voice of God. He lived there because years earlier, his mother Hannah, heartbroken-yet-endlessly-hopeful, made a vow. She promised God (and Eli, the priest) that she would give her child away (to the temple, the priest, the God) if only she could have one in the first place.
A fellow student – a young man in his early 20s – decided to express his opinion: how crazy a woman would have to be to promise her unborn child. “What woman would do that?!? I can’t believe any woman could make that kind of a choice! What’s wrong with her?!”
As memory serves, my blood boiled and a switch flipped. The highly-honed and years-
practiced parts of me that had always done the right thing and said the right thing (which usually meant saying nothing) said “no more.” I turned from my front-row seat toward his in the back and said (at a volume that increased word-by-word):
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know what you’re talking about! How could you? You’re not a woman. You couldn’t possibly understand. I do. I know. Any woman who that desperately longs for a child will promise anything, anything to get what she wants – even if it seems like it’s the craziest thing in the world! I made promises like that! Hoping-praying believing that if I just offered enough, gave enough, prayed enough, suffered enough, waited enough, was faithful enough, that maybe I would be granted my only wish, my deepest desire, a child of my own.
Frankly, I didn’t care what it cost me. I’d deal with the consequences later. In fact, I would have lied, stolen, and done nearly anything to get the only thing I wanted, the only thing that mattered. And it wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t crazy. I was willing to sacrifice what I most wanted to get what I most wanted. That’s what a woman knows. That’s what a woman promises. That’s how a woman lives. You don’t know.”
I turned back to the front of the class. Discussion continued. I don’t remember a bit of it. I do remember that I was never the same.
That day I heard a woman’s story being told in a way I knew wasn’t true, wasn’t accurate, wasn’t right. She was being misunderstood and misinterpreted, even maligned. And though I couldn’t quite see it at the time, it seemed as though his words were being spoken about me. It seemed that way, because it was that way. If I allowed Hannah’s story to be told in a way that felt shortsighted, lacking in grace, and frankly, just wrong, why would I expect that I should feel anything different on my own behalf?
The way in which I hear and tell the stories of other women is directly proportionate to the way in which I live my own. (The same is true for you.)
It doesn’t matter that nearly 15 years have passed since the day I spoke up in that class. The stories of staying quiet, following the rules, and doing what’s expected are still being told within my psyche. I can hear the doubts, the insecurities, the fears. I desperately need to (re)tell stories of women in reimagined and redeemed ways so that I can reimagine and redeem my own. (The same is true for you.)
And so I do. I (re)tell the ancient, sacred stories of women – over and over and over again.
The more they are understood, the more I understand myself. The more their voices are heard, the more mine is. The more they are seen as brave and beautiful, the more I see myself as such. The more I bring their wisdom forth, the more my own does the same. And the more I free them from old, tired tellings that silence and shame, the more I am freed, unsilenced, and unashamed. Did I mention? The way in which I tell the stories is exactly the way in which I live my own. (The same is true for you.)
Listen to the stories you’ve been told (about yourself, your past, your history, your lineage, your culture, your beliefs). Listen to the way in which they’ve been told. And especially listen to the ones you’ve been telling yourself. Stand up to misunderstanding. Disallow misinterpretation. And put a stop to the maligning. Then look for the stories you need; the ones that will invite you to living your own the way you most desire and most deserve. (I’ve got just a few of these to tell…)
It might be that once you have some reimagined and redeemed stories in your own queue, your own psyche, your very soul, that you, too, will speak up in class, stand up at work – at home – in relationship; that you will say “no,” shout “yes,” step forth, and shine. May it be so.
The woman’s story I defended that day? She did get her heart’s desire – and then some. Call her crazy if you want. She knew better. So did I. So do you.