September 7, 2013

The Myth of Making it on Our Own.

Growing up, I was poor. I wasn’t lower middle class or even lower-lower-middle class, but poor.

When I decided to attend college, my parents informed me that there was no money to pay for tuition or even books. Undeterred, I filled out all the forms on my own and thanks to scholarships and financial aid, I was able to attend an elite university and go on to graduate school.

While I’m certainly not a huge success story and live quite modestly, it is fair to say that I have achieved a level of education and comfort that I never would have thought possible as a young child.

I haven’t shared my story with many, but when I have, most of the time people compliment me on my moxie and say how great it is that I made it all on my own.

I have to admit that the first time I heard this I was flattered. The praise felt nice, and I appeared to some to be a strong woman.

However, the problem was it wasn’t true: The truth is, I didn’t make it on my own. Indeed, I had a lot of help in the form of a grandmother who gave me unconditional love and put a roof over my head when my mother could not and teachers who encouraged me and supported me in my journey—not to mention the generosity of my alma matar.

Without the love and support of the above, I have no doubt that my life would have ended up dramatically different and not for the better.

Later on, when I finally admitted how many people it took to help me get to where I am today, many dismissed or chose to ignore that fact, claiming that I had still done it all by myself.

In many ways, that sort of thinking is very much a part of our culture.

Indeed, the myth of the self-made person is the stuff of American legend. Think of the Horatio Alger story or the mythical millionaire who started out with nothing and through sheer will and  the sweat of his or her own brow made it big.

While some of this is no doubt true—mostly anyone who comes from a modest background and goes on to achieve some sort of success in life works hard to get there—the fact is, few people make it without the support of others.

Still, for some people, admitting this is almost akin to blasphemy. We have this idea that we are all we ever need to make it in life whether it is financially or emotionally.

I noticed this in response to recent pieces I wrote about aging and the fear of ending up alone. I had several friends and acquaintances comment how sad it was that so people worry about being alone. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could just love themselves and be their own best friends?

I agree with them 100 percent. It would be wonderful. In fact, I would like nothing more if that was the case. However, the people I know who are happily living alone without a partner in their lives are not actually alone. Instead, they have a strong network of friends and extended family, and many of them are never actually alone because they are always in contact with those friends and family.

Likewise, in my own experience, true self-love is only possible when you have loved ones in your life. All the self-help books and mantras in the world didn’t lead to me starting to love myself until I was around supportive friends. Having these people in my life, sharing both the good and bad times with them is what led me to realize that I was actually a decent person who was worthy of love and respect.

Still, just admitting that you need the help and support of others and attempting to reach out can be as scary as hell. When my father was first diagnosed with Stage 4, inoperable lung cancer, I chose not to tell anyone at first, lest anyone thing I was looking for pity or trying to gain sympathy.

However, after the fourth night in a row of waking up at 3:00 a.m. and locking my self in the downstairs bathroom trying to make sense of the odd combination of sadness, fear and relief I felt. I struggled with the idea of this man no longer being in my life. I realized that I did need empathy. I needed to share my story and hear words of support and love from others who had gone through similar experiences. I could not carry this burden alone. Just admitting this to myself felt like a weight had been lifted from me.

Yet, I freely admit that it still scares me to allow myself to be that vulnerable in front of others. I am still learning how to overcome that and some days, I still cannot open up as much as I wish I could.

In many ways, the above has been a gift of sorts.

As a yoga instructor, I often mention the importance of letting go of one’s ego. I don’t think I actually came close to that myself until I started peeling away the layers of carefully-constructed persona—the self-made, one-woman army—and admit that like every other person on the planet, I need other people.

My biggest fear was that by admitting this I would be ridiculed or called a fake, but surprisingly, neither has happened. Instead, I have had people I never would have guessed been there for me, showing me the sort of love and support I have not experienced since I was very young. It’s been both touching and humbling and something that all the financial success in the world could never buy.

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Ed: Sara Crolick




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