Bravery: Putting Yourself First
It seems easy enough to proclaim that you’re the kind of person who never seeks validation from others or allows them to influence your lifestyle and decisions, but can any one of us vouch for that with absolute sincerity? We are all susceptible to social pressure, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not; and one of my greatest faults was letting the opinions of outsiders hold precedent over my own values and dreams. As a child surrounded by art and literature from an impressionable age, you’d think choosing writing as a career path later in life would be simple and even inevitable — no questions asked, no raised eyebrows, just straightforward encouragement. The unfortunate truth is that to some degree, the people you surround yourself with already have an idealistic view of what your future should look like, based on whatever limited knowledge they may have gathered about you and your history. While some are unfazed by the idea of changing their perception, others are far less lenient — and true colors are revealed when they’re unwilling to extend their support in favor of your choices.
I come from a lineage of successful doctors — I was born and bred in a family of medicine, and a culture where getting into such fields is fostered and ultimately expected. If your passion lies elsewhere, it’s merely brushed off as a hobby; something to lean on when you have no other commitments, something you can’t fully dedicate yourself to and put your heart and soul in. So, regardless of being that girl who was racing through the Harry Potter series while her classmates struggled through Junie B. Jones, who taught herself to use Microsoft Word in the early days of the paper clip assistant so she could write her own fiction, who submitted short stories to the local library that all surpassed the word limit — when the time came to become truly serious about my writing, I convinced myself it just wasn’t my calling.
Despite my parents continuously reminding me and my siblings about the importance of doing what you love as opposed to bending to other people’s will, I was a stubborn and vulnerable teenager with a desire to be embraced by everyone. I began to take offhanded remarks like “Indians are only successful as doctors and engineers” to heart. My once full fledged, well-planned out fantasy of someday publishing novels and attending book signings slowly dissected itself until I fully and truly believed that writing was my “wasted potential.” As some elders in my community put it, I had the “brains for so much more.” That rush of energy I felt every time strung out sentences and paragraphs collided in my head was gone — replaced by only a dull ache, as though I’d lost a whole chunk of my heart.
As junior year of high school rolled around and the question of what I wanted to do with my life became one people expected genuine answers for, I found myself repeating the same phrase over and over again until it sat like a deadweight on the tip of my tongue: “a doctor, like my dad.” It was, of course, exactly what they wanted to hear — the firstborn daughter carrying on the legacy, good on her father for passing on the torch, a true role model for the community! There was a kind of high I got from all the attention — acceptance was something I’d always craved, and even if it was for all the wrong reasons, it felt amazing. But, like most things in this life, there’s an expiration date on everything. The excitement that came with being put on a pedestal lasted for what seemed like a fraction of a second, until self-loathing crept its way in. I despised myself for being so fake, for being a hypocrite, and for going against all the values my parents had tried to instill in me growing up.
Like any sane person would never advise you to do, I threw myself into my work to avoid dealing with my issues. As I balanced studying for the SATs and managing my course load, a huge change was taking place under my roof. My mother, after setting aside a whole portion of her life to attend to her family’s needs, decided to complete her college education. Prior to moving to the States and getting married, she’d been studying and selling her art in our hometown of Bangalore, India. Education had never been much of a priority in her household, especially for women — her three sisters were also married young and committed to their respective families, and my mother, despite having so much scope for growth as an emerging talent, was left to do the same.
Subconsciously, I observed as my mom wholly dedicated herself to schoolwork for the first time. She’d cancel her other appointments to meet deadlines, and stay up into the early hours of the morning completing assignments until they neared perfection — all in the pursuit of getting a degree so she could finally do what she loved, professionally. Time and people didn’t seem to faze her — there was no reluctance I sensed about her age or field being barriers for success. I didn’t realize it at the time, but watching my mother work was the push I needed to break free from the depression that threatened to ruin everything I wanted my life to be.
Without planning or thinking twice, and with a rush of adrenaline at an ungodly hour of the morning, I created a blog and published my first piece of writing, sharing it on social media for all to see. It became a ritual to do this every night: the talent I presumed would’ve been lost in all the time it was never utilized was still there, beneath the surface of all doubt and confusion. It was like meeting an old friend after years spent apart, and still recognizing each other’s habits and quirks, something even distance can’t manage to erase. I wrote and posted everything from poetry to book reviews to op-ed pieces on social issues, and the response was unlike anything I could’ve ever imagined.
I was writing for online publications like The Affinity Magazine and The Huffington Post after being discovered by its writers and editors, and friends and family alike were sending me messages of encouragement and support, saying things like“we need more young women’s voices out there.” Those who opposed what I was doing, who felt my time would be better spent in a ‘low-key’ field, who disliked where I stood on the issues I cared about didn’t affect me the way they once had.
I’d fought a hellish internal battle to learn the lessons I did: toxic individuals couldn’t validate me and didn’t deserve my time, and choosing happiness over fear actually made you worthy of people’s respect.