The ten years between age eighteen to twenty-eight—the beginning of undergrad to the birth of my first child—were marked by my profound arrogance.
This arrogance wasn’t there when I was seventeen. When I turned seventeen, I was still in high school just outside of Washington, DC. My classmates were the children of lawyers and judges and professors. They took all AP classes and got perfect scores on the SATs (and this was the old SAT back when it was harder to get a high score). Compared to them, I was brainless. I played the flute passably in the band, but the rest of them composed symphonies in their spare time and even the most casual of players had taken private lessons since toddlerhood. The girls in my lit class all had crushes on George Stephanopolis, which they discussed while eating the bagels they’d picked up on their drive to school, stopping only to correct me when I pronounced the word “facade” with a hard “c,” having seen it only in print and never heard it spoken.
I was sub-par, and I went off to college a few months before my eighteenth birthday knowing this very clearly.
But then something changed.
At first I hated college and fell into a deep depression. I cloistered myself in my dorm room with Kurt Vonnegut novels and the Reality Bites soundtrack, emerging only for classes and to visit the sundae bar in the cafeteria. During our six-week mid-year break I begged my parents to let me stay in Virginia, but after Christmas, they packed me up and, ignoring my sobs, returned me to Ohio.
Back on campus, in the face of my helplessness and depression, a bizarre sense of freedom struck me. It didn’t matter what people thought of me because it didn’t matter what I thought of myself, and as a result, I felt free to do and say whatever I wanted. I went to every weird foreign film and off-the-wall talk on campus. I went caving despite a fear of darkness and enclosed spaces. Unconcerned about ridicule, I spoke up in every class and attempted to start an underground newspaper (although we couldn’t scare up anything juicy to reveal about the administration, so the paper folded before it started). I cultivated in myself an arrogance I’d not known before.
This devil-may-care arrogance stuck with me after college, too. I never had any doubt that I would be qualified for whatever job I might pursue, and I quit jobs with impunity when I determined that they were no longer serving my needs (lucky for me, these were largely entry-level office jobs and temp work, and I graduated into a very friendly job market).
I researched anything that interested me—from yoga to photography to childbirth to micro-brewed beer. I developed strong opinions, which I shared freely, confident that there were no other reasonable opinions to have. About seven years after college I was working in a large corporation editing promotional materials. One day I hung up the phone after trying to reason with the marketing department and my officemate said, “You don’t suffer fools gladly, do you?” No, I most certainly did not.
And then I turned twenty-eight and had my first child. My arrogance dissolved, and I immediately knew nothing. Once I stopped struggling against the persistent ignorance that became apparent when I became a mother, I settled into a hitherto foreign sense of humility. I knew nothing for certain, and I was fine with that. I maintained strong convictions about the things that were important to me (home birth, breastfeeding, circumcision, gentle parenting, homeschooling, healthy eating), but for the first time, I recognized that we’re all just doing what it takes to get through our days, and that it mattered little—if at all—if someone did something differently from how I did it. I settled into a habit of saying little about my opinions and instead listening more and judging less. I became happier, less anxious, and much, much quieter.
After ten years of intensive humility training, I sense another change coming on. At thirty-eight, I don’t feel the arrogance that marked the period between eighteen and twenty-eight, but I no longer feel comfortable keeping quiet as I trained myself to do in the ten years since I birthed my daughter. I feel a quickening and a pull towards something outside of myself.
It’s not an entirely new feeling, but for the first time in my life, its character isn’t immediately identifiable. For the first time, my childbearing days are no longer ahead of me. For the first time, I’m not itching to force a change by moving to a different geographical location.
Although I still feel a strong desire to explore unknown places and to immerse myself in foreign cultures, I recognize that much of that work I can do by digging in where I am and opening myself to the things that scare me—issues of race, poverty, community conflict, accelerating changes in our climate, religious difference—and the helplessness I feel in the face of these things.
I feel the pull, but I don’t quite know what it’s pulling me towards.
I want to speak out with confidence from a place of humility. I want to step out into the air and trust that the world will hold me up. I want to know—for good and true—that I have nothing to lose.