A Healthy Dose of Rebellion
Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth. – John F. Kennedy
Living in the town you grew up in has its advantages and disadvantages.
Primary advantage: you know where everything is.
Primary dis-advantage: you know who everyone is.
That last part’s not quite true. My ‘town’ is really too big to be called a town. But it’s the smallest ‘big-city-suburb’ I know, because everyone is related to everyone, and once you know a handful of those people related to everyone, you know everyone else and how they relate back.
Someday I should really do a ‘six degrees of – (insert semi-Mennonite or Dutch name here) chart’, except it might take me, well, years to write down.
Though I’m primarily an introvert (yes, we might be weird, but we’re also awesome!), I shockingly do love people. I love connecting to people. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job. But sometimes, some of those connections revives a memory or two you’d rather forget – for eternity, might I add.
And sometimes the overwhelming connectedness makes me long for the blank-slate freshness of a small town or big city really, really far away.
Because I live in a place where everyone – even the decent people – are somehow trying to live the dream.
I wrote a couple of months ago about how we all get to ‘live the dream,’ if we consider all the variables and keep our perspective skewed properly, but the kind of pursuit I see around me, the kind I work hard not to get sucked into but still do somehow, sometimes, is the one where we all look the same, have the same things (big house, two cars, four perfectly-behaved-and-elegantly-dressed children, and maybe a boat or flying unicorn to get us to our vacation house in Bora Bora when the stress of all this awesome stuff is just too hard to bear), do the same things, and even think the same.
As in, we think all of this is normal and good.
My city isn’t as Stepford as all of this sounds. But the reason that my first thirteen years of school were a bit, painful, at times, other than the episodes of my own stupidity, of course, was that it was extremely obvious I was different from those around me.
I tried not to be. But I couldn’t help it.
And as the post-high school years waned on, I realized I really couldn’t help it. I was labeled with adjectives like, ‘strong,’ (always attached to the moniker, ‘strong woman,’ which apparently is far more offensive than a ‘strong man’), ‘rebellious,’ ‘determined,’ ‘intense,’ and ‘feisty.’
I began to hate those words.
Because somehow, it felt like they were all trying to tell me, it’s not okay to be you, but we’ll dress it up in terms that don’t sound so terrible.
Or, in other words, it’s not okay to be different.
Those who used the above words to describe me probably didn’t – always – mean it as an insult, or something to correct, at least, but amidst all these labels, I finally learned the thing my seventh-grade teacher wished for me: that I’d be okay with who I was, just as I was, without always trying to measure up.
It only took marriage, cancer, children, and the death of a handful of close loved ones, but that thing is being beaten out of me.
Because if there’s two things I’ve learned the last decade, it’s that: 1) Being different is not only okay, it’s also awesome, and 2) I’m a kid person.
Those might not seem related, but they are.
Last month I was out with three girlfriends whose relationships with each other have miraculously, joyously, survived for eighteen years. With these ladies, I can laugh, vent, rant, smile, and even cry. Even though (or maybe because) we all knew each other in high school, they’re okay with me, and me with them.
I told them my most recent ‘oh my word, how do I deal with this one?’ parenting story with the tag of, if this girl grows up and is a healthy citizen instead of a criminal, I’ll be reallllllly happy.
An hour before this girls-night-out, David and I had heard a blood-curdling scream upstairs. When we rushed to find out the problem, we discovered that three-year-old Miss E-Elliana had dumped out six-year-old Miss Noell-e’s piggy bank and hurriedly placed each stolen coin in her own piggybank. Noelle was screaming, ‘That’s mine!’ and Elliana was looking at her, thoroughly confused.
David and I exchanged the look. As in, do you think anyone would notice if we just left and flew to Hawaii instead of dealing with this? Yes? Okay, fine, you take one, I’ll take the other.
I picked up Elliana and carried her to her room. I carefully explained why Noelle was upset at what she’d done. I pointed out that what she did is the definition of the word, ‘stealing.’
Elliana looked up at me, doe-eyed and unaffected. ‘But, but, but… Mom, I needed more money.’
I tried not to smile, then explained how money is earned.
When telling this story to my girlfriends, however, one of them burst out with a grin, ‘Well, I like her!’
Another agreed. ‘Your children are hilarious, Lana.’
The thing is, they’re right. My kids are hilarious, creative, smart, and… different.
As great as it is to raise children in a community, as fun as it is to do playdates with your long-time friends who have kids the same ages as yours, sometimes I just love being around moms whose kids are much, much older than mine – or women without kids at all. Because they both have perspectives on child-raising that are peppered with different experiences than my daily events, and both are more focused on what makes a healthy adult than a child who behaves.
I think too often we parents-of-young-children (or even parents of older children) are so tired we care more about quiet and order than we do about personhood and the long-range effects of what we’re using to discipline our children.
And those moments that my kids defy me – the money-grubbing incident aside – almost make me a bit proud.
Let me explain.
We all need to learn submission to proper authorities. We need to be okay with putting our own wishes aside for the greater good. We need to trust that certain safe, more experienced people than us will make decisions that are best for us.
But not all ‘authorities’ are safe.
Think about school-yard ‘authorities.’ We may call them the ‘popular people.’ Sometimes they’re just, bullies.
Do I want my child to do everything the popular people or bullies tell them to do?
No, thank you.
One of the moments I was most proud of Noelle was halfway through kindergarten. She bounced out of her classroom and told me about their ‘science experiment,’ which involved soaking celery in red water.
‘We had to make a hibiscus, Mom,’ she said.
‘You mean, hypothesis?’
‘Yup, hibiscus. And everyone else said that the celery would turn red tomorrow, but I didn’t want to be the same as everyone else. That’s boring. So I said the celery would die.’
I hugged her tight.
She learned the next day that the celery did indeed turn red and that group mentality is sometimes right.
But she also knew it was okay to challenge the norm.
And to me, that’s a far more important lesson than what happens to celery in red water.
Because group mentality isn’t always right.
Elizabeth Blackwell knew about that.
She was the third of nine children born to UK sugar refiner Samuel Blackwell in the early 1800’s. Thanks to her father’s large income and passion for education, she was tutored by household servants in the same curriculum as her school-going brothers. Surviving most of her siblings and a fire that destroyed her father’s business, the now-much-smaller Blackwell family emigrated to the United States in 1832.
But running a sugar refinery in New York City was not as easy as in the United Kingdom.
Because the Blackwells were devout Quakers. And, as such, they vehemently disagreed with slavery. And, as many of you know, the early-nineteenth-century United States sugar business thrived on slavery.
Eventually the Blackwells found a small plant in Ohio that would allow their business to continue without exploiting human beings.
So they moved to Cincinnati, and Samuel Blackwell promptly died.
Young Elizabeth realized the fate of her now-poverty-striken family was in her hands.
She first pursued a teaching degree in Kentucky, but she hated it. It was merely a means to an end.
And that end? Making money for medical school.
It was an unusual dream for the time. Women weren’t even allowed to vote. How could they make decisions about another person’s health?
Opposed to the oppression of women and slaves, Elizabeth and her surviving siblings became highly active in the suffragist and anti-slavery movements. Among their rebel connections, Elizabeth herself studied medicine with whoever would let her, living and working alongside family physicians in the mid-west.
In 1845, she became the first woman accepted to medical school.
Geneva Medical College in New York had said they would put her application to a student vote. If even one current student disagreed with her admission, she would be turned away. The students thought the application was a hoax, and told the faculty they welcomed her admission.
But when they discovered the application was real, and belonged to a real, live, feisty woman, the all-male student body lived up to their promise of gentlemanly behavior. Elizabeth herself told professors that if they were disturbed by ‘student no. 156 wearing a bonnet, she would be pleased to remove her conspicuous headgear and sit at the rear of the classroom,’ but would not voluntarily absent herself from a lecture.
It worked. In 1849 she became the first female in the United States to graduate from medical school.
Most hospitals still banned her from practice, so she returned to Europe to be trained as a midwife. In 1869, she opened the Women’s Medical College with Florence Nightengale. She wrote tirelessly on the subject of women’s education, disease and hygiene, and the ‘barbaric’ practice of circumcision.
She also opened the first training school for nurses in the United States.
Openly criticized most of her eighty-nine years for being different, I wonder how different North America, the United Kingdom, and the practice of medicine would look, had Elizabeth not used her l’il bit o’ sass to challenge the current reigning majority.
Then, the ‘popular people’ though slavery was more than okay. And then, the ‘popular people’ thought women belonged in the home as the property of their husbands or fathers, unworthy of education, career, or choice. And then, doctors still weren’t aware that hand-washing between patients prevented the spread of infection.
So maybe I don’t want my child to always do everything everyone else tells her to do.
And maybe I don’t always want her to take whatever I say as gospel.
Maybe the moments she challenges me are opportunities to develop her self-esteem and empathy for others.
And, this is how I realized I’m a kid person.
Because the more I talk to my children like they’re small adults instead of house plants, like they’re growing individuals instead of lemmings, the more I see all kids around me as just little people, and not a different species.
And these little people – even those who can’t really talk yet – have something to say. As parents, it’s our job to figure out what, and to channel it to a productive, helpful place.
It’s also our job to take our child’s deepest, darkest feelings, and help them channel those into empathy, compassion, and creativity.
And, I believe, when we do this right, it doesn’t compromise our authority at all.
It actually establishes our authority.
You can check back with me in twenty years to see if this all pays out. But for now, I know its what I’m supposed to do. Because, I was lucky enough to have parents that believed I was a little person and not an alien. And its made me see myself – and everyone else around me – differently.
Being different isn’t just okay. It’s interesting. It’s fun. And it’s awesome.
But, excuse me, I have an original musical to go listen to in my living room. My little people have something to say. And I intend on hearing it.
Who knows? One day they might be the first somebody to do something, all because they knew it was okay to be different.
How about you? It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can still embrace your healthy dose of rebellion.
And when you do, at least one other person will be cheering you on.
Because, as Theodore H. White says, to go against the dominant thinking of your friends, or most of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult act of heroism you can perform.
So, go ahead. Be a hero.
Or, as Judy Garland put it, always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.