One of my most favourite questions that I would pose to my classes was, ‘how many languages can you speak’? Invariably, the vast majority of the class would slump and groan and respond with the word ‘one’. There was a sense that the answer should be more, could be more and never would be. The less academic they felt, the more the slump. But it was a favourite question, not because of the momentary depression that ensued, but for the discussion that always followed. For my point was always that we are all multi-lingual, from the formal to the intimate, the familial to the stranger, we adapt the way we communicate to be either easier to understand or more difficult. Of course, some people excel, some don’t, but complexity of language is a skill which is almost universal. Everyone is more than their perception of the ‘right’ handling, of the ‘proper’ definition of their mother tongue.
A few nights ago, I heard Salman Rushdie speak and, whilst I found it hard to agree with all that he said, one point reminded me of my old teaching days. And it struck me that it was perhaps more important that had ever occurred to me then. What I heard from his words was this:
We are born into stories, we live for stories and for the stories we ourselves create. As humans, we absorb stories of family and community, nation and country and all the layers inbetween. We define ourselves by what we contribute to in anecdote and and global shifts. We align ourselves with particular characters, celebrate our own plethora of heroes and look every day to see how to get the most out of our own tale. We are mothers and sisters, daughters and colleagues. We are soldiers and peacekeepers, diplomats and dictators. We are all things to some people at some time as the days pass by our eyes.
And yet, we live in brittle times, bound by definitions and stories that the powers that be are trying to lock down. It suits the modern world for people to narrow their own story to a single track, to rewrite one narrative over and above all the others and to ignore the rest of the subplots. And in doing so, we are reduced to an extreme of us, to a fundamental of us and from that foundation, factions of us and them can be fostered. Reducing your story to one focal point, to minimise the impact of the 360 degree universe to a single plane of identity and parallel thought, is to dehumanise yourself. To render yourself less that your natural abundant self, perfectly imperfect.
Just as my students felt failure when they felt they couldn’t measure up to a single measure, and felt empowered when they were allowed to re-package the question as a fully-rounded, all-inclusive query, we can all feel disempowered when we are reduced to a single tick box. An irreducible yes/no option will never allow us to capture the inherent wealth and beauty that lies within every one of us. The verdict then, that I left with a couple of nights ago, is that to be our best, to embrace our true essence, to grow to be our best, we must define ourselves as broadly as possible.
This isn’t easy, it means that we have to give love to the parts of us that we would rather ignore. We may feel ourselves to be successful at work but terrible at home. We may feel amazing at being healthy and want to ignore a monthly binge. We may wish to focus on being a beautiful partner and ignore being an appalling child. But to do so, is to ignore our nature. We are human and we create stories every day, from every interaction and every silent thought we construct our world and our legacy. There is no-one who is simply a nationality, a sexuality, a disability or a specific ability. There is no-one who does themselves a service by becoming one-dimensional.
Focusing on only one facet renders us a brittle sequin, little flex and only a reflexive shine. We should be gems, rounded, glowing from within, of the earth and bringing beauty to it. So shine wide and broad, embrace all that you are and know that you serve the world through all that you are.