“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.”
I once read this quote on a whiteboard outside of one of my professors’ offices. I’ve always admired her endless positivity, viewing it as some far-off destination I’ve circled on a map that maybe, someday, I’ll get the chance to visit. It’s hard sometimes to separate yourself from your backstory–to rise above the pages of narrative that trail behind you each day. I spent many years believing that the past was something I couldn’t escape, its poison-ivy fingers wrapping themselves around my ankles and slowly pulling me backward into the shadows. I was, for a long time, what happened to me, and I felt about as much in control of my destiny as I was of the weather.
There’s an inherent value in believing that everything happens for a reason: it allows you to believe that there’s a method to the madness that is life–a kind of stability within chaos. I tried to frame my father’s death in these terms, trying to divine a reason for tragedy. When karma is a didactic tool used to teach children to be kind and just, facing something that seems anti-karmic is a jarring experience. What had my dad done to deserve dying so young? What had I, in my short life of fourteen years, done to warrant such a harsh punishment? For years I sat writing my way through an event in an attempt to make sense of the senseless. If everything happens for a reason, what was the justification for this?
The professor to whom the whiteboard belongs met me when I was still defining myself in terms of the effect my father’s death had had on me. I spent a decent amount of time relating my backstory to her as if that were a means of introducing myself. Since her academic specialization was religion, I implored her for a reason why God would put my family through something so terrible. One day, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Those who have suffered are called to a higher purpose.”
This was the first time I was presented with the idea of choosing what I could become in the face of what I had been or what had been placed upon my shoulders. If we’re being honest, I didn’t like it. In my mind, her response did nothing to answer my question. I didn’t care what my purpose was–I cared what the purpose of my backstory was. Looking backward for years at a time had stiffened my neck to the point where it had forgotten that “backward” wasn’t the only direction in which it could turn.
It’s interesting to me how epiphanies happen so suddenly, but once they do, it’s as if no other way of thinking has ever existed. There’s “before epiphany” and “after epiphany,” but they seem miles apart from each other even though, temporally, they’re separated by a matter of minutes. Although many conversations and a lot of introspection lead to my understanding what all of these threads meant–even though it took me years to weave them together into something real–it happened as dramatically and suddenly as a bolt of lightning. One moment I was the past, and the next I was the future.
There will never be a reason for my father’s death. It happened, and it’s not my job to determine why the stars aligned the way they did or what lesson was supposed to be learned from spiderweb of cracks that radiated from the impact. That’s beyond my control, anyway.
Accepting the past for what it was was a radical enough development, but I took it one step further: I chose what to do with it. In that moment, I chose to use my experiences to help those who can’t imagine a life other than being defined by circumstances that were beyond their control.
Psychology was always an interesting thought to me, and all of my writings throughout high school related to the amazing capacity humans have to relate to one another. Becoming a psychologist existed in the town next to my professor’s optimism on the map of places I hoped I’d end up one day, but when that lightning bolt of realization jolted through me, I picked up the map and drove.
I can’t change what happened to me, but I do, absolutely, get to choose what to do with it. Like all humans, I have the ability to create light where there’s only ever been darkness, and that’s what becoming a psychologist is for me. It’s making sense of the senseless and turning tragedy into a higher purpose, if such a thing exists. My future clients will never know this event that defined me for all of my adolescent life, but they will know I walk with them in a way no one else has. Because I have suffered and cursed God and lost my way, I know–in a way I never would have understood otherwise–how to sit with someone who no longer follows the plot to her own life.
Throughout his life, my father gave me the gifts of patience and presence. Through his passing, he encouraged me to give those gifts to someone else.
Thank you, Dad. Always.
(I realize I didn’t post for February. This is mostly due to school work but my inability to think of something “good enough” to write definitely factored in. This project also serves as a reminder to cut myself slack when things go awry, so that’s what I’m chalking last month up to. I will make an honest attempt to double up for March.)