I recently read Glennon Doyle’s most recent (and in my opinion, her best) book, Untamed. In the very first essay, Glennon recounts a visit to the zoo she took with her wife and daughters.
We are introduced to Tabitha, a cheetah who was born into captivity and lives at the zoo with her keepers and her best friend, a loyal and obedient lab. Tabitha has grown up with the lab for so long that she behaves like the lab, and demonstrates her lab-like life by chasing a dirty pink stuffed bunny tied to the back of a car for the spectators…just like her lab-friend does. She performs. She is rewarded for her performance. And in her cage she is safe, she is fed, she is not alone. In her cage, though, she can see beyond the bars into the wild where her heart knows she belongs. She knows who she is, her true nature. She is a cheetah.
I have been living in cages for as long as I can remember. My cages have been expectations put on me by a world that tells me how to behave, how to live, who to love, how to set aside my wild heart to conform to what society tells me is acceptable. We all have been placed in cages. Our wildness is tamed every time a parent tells her daughter to tone it down or reminds his son that boys are supposed to be tough. The truth of our soul is dimmed a little when we tell children their dreams are silly or that they should be more realistic.
I have two children, a son and a daughter until they tell me otherwise. I know that I have caged them and I want to release their wild hearts. I want them to take their dreams and make wings out of them. I want my daughter to assert herself and to use her strength and her fierceness to create the world she envisions. I want my son to never lose his sensitivity, to care deeply about injustice, to want to change systems so others are treated fairly. I never want them to believe that to be a woman or a man means they must lose a part of their humanity to fit into a box called gender. I never want them to believe that to love whomever they love is somehow less-than real and powerful and life-affirming because some people don’t approve or don’t believe it to be “normal”. I want them to know that there is a wild world out there, just waiting for them to explore it.
But I am human. And I parent the way I was parented, in the society I grew up in, and from my own wounds. And my parents parented the way they were parented, in the society they grew up in, and from their own wounds. We all are doing the best we can, but knowing better means we must strive to do better. I know I have minimized the dreams of my children. I know I have invalidated the tears of my son because they made me uncomfortable and told my daughter to stop being so bossy, when really she was just asserting herself.
I want to stop performing. I never want my children to perform. I want to know that I am loved and cared for and seen even when I am not performing to the expectations of others. I want my children to know they never have to live up to my expectations for who I think they should be, but to just be who they were born to be.
But cages also keep us feeling safe. We don’t have to fear what’s out in the wild when we are safely locked inside. We don’t have to wonder what will happen to us if we escape our confines and live wild, untamed lives. Sometimes, what we know feels better than what we don’t know. Familiarity is comfortable. Freedom is one of those things that both scares and excites me. What would my life look like if I shuffled off the expectations placed on me since the day I was born and just lived as my wild heart desires?
When I was nine, my teacher asked us to write a story about our vision of the future. I wrote from my heart, pouring my soul out on the page as I wrote about a child, me, seeing another child alone and hungry on the streets. As a kid, the thought of children living in poverty or being alone broke my heart. I hated seeing people excluded or ridiculed. In my story, I sat down and talked with this child, sharing my lunch and making a friend. This was my nine-year-old vision of the future. A future where kids wouldn’t be alone and hungry and where people would share what they had and learn to understand each other. My classmates took the writing assignment in a very different direction, writing about alien invasions and nuclear war (this was the 80’s) and a world of dominating others and killing our earth. They were stories of fear and power instead of hope. When it came time to read our stories, mine was near the end. I listened as my classmates cheered and clapped for each other. And I knew that I was so different from everyone else. There was no way I was sharing my story. No way I was going to let everyone know I had a completely different idea. So I ran.
I ran out into the hallway and I sat down and cried. I cried because I felt alone. I felt naive. I cried because I was ashamed for not getting the point of the assignment – because clearly everyone else understood it differently. I was so embarrassed.
Then my teacher, Mr. Kressler, came out. He asked me why I had run. I told him I did the story all wrong and I didn’t want to read it because I knew everyone would laugh. He asked to read it himself. So I let him. When he was finished, Mr. Kressler knelt down and looked me right in my eyes and said, “this is the most beautiful vision of the future I can imagine.”
We all need more Mr. Kresslers in our lives. We need people to tell us that the wild and untamed visions of our hearts are good and worth following. I held that vision in my heart and in a way I followed it, becoming a Teacher, believing that education can pull people out of poverty, supporting kids and now, as a Principal, hopefully, supporting teachers to spark dreams and hope and vision in young people. But it is safe. I know that the spark I had at nine years old is dimmer now. I found a safe way to follow my vision. But what could have been if I had embraced it and been bold in declaring and fighting and standing up more when it really mattered? What if my passion for justice and equity were louder and bolder and more direct?
I may never know. I am a captive-born cheetah. I will never live in the wild, running free. I will never sleep under the ink-black sky or feel the thrill of the hunt. I pace in my cage, seeing a glimpse of what I know to be the real me, but like that nine-year-old girl, I’m afraid to show her, afraid to stop chasing pink bunnies because I don’t want to be alone, or because I don’t know what a version of me outside of a cage would look like. But maybe it isn’t too late to break out? Maybe is isn’t too late to declare that I no longer wish to be imprisoned by the expectations placed on me by society and those who came before me, who tell me how I should behave, or perform, or appear to be in order to be accepted and loved. Maybe the only one I need to answer to is me. Maybe it’s time.