How Avis went from Appalachian deprivation to Creativity in Waikiki...
My last article described the Protective Ego-Self. That part of us that does all it can to keep us safe, even if it also inhibits us from taking on challenges that could lead us to our highest potential (Read it now: You Are So F*cking Amazing!).
This week I’d like to talk about one aspect of the Protective Ego-Self that can be especially powerful: The Internalized Voice of Tradition.
The Internalized Voice of Tradition comes from messages we’ve absorbed unconsciously from our family and culture.
It includes lots of rules and tells us there’s a correct way to live our lives. This can be ok if our temperament and aspirations happen to fit within those of our family and culture. But if they don't, it can create a lot of self-doubt and keep us from finding our true path in life.
The power of this traditional messaging creates a voice inside our head that tells us we need to fit in if we want to survive and be safe.
It convinces us that we need to live our life in a way that represents the values of “Our People” and makes them proud--regardless of what might inspire and motivate us as individuals.
Tradition isn't all bad but it can be limiting. The key is balance. We can hold onto the helpful messages we got from our family and culture while letting go of those that keep us from living our lives in our own way.
My Appalachian People
Just before the depression, my grandma Avis was born in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. When she was just two years old, her dad was killed when a train car he was repairing fell and crushed him.
Because she was so young, my grandma couldn’t comprehend that her dad was actually gone for good. For many weeks she stood at the window every evening, waiting for him to come home from work.
The loss was profound. My grandma had been her dad’s favorite and he'd given her love and attention she couldn't always get from her very busy mom. His death left his wife and their six kids to fend for themselves. The resulting poverty created a life of constant hard work and deprivation.
Staunch pragmatism--at all times and in all ways--became a primary virtue in my grandma’s family. Their utter practicality helped them live through a lot of hardship.
By the time I knew her, my grandma seemed to be a pure reflection of the values she learned in childhood. Until her last day, she remained the hardest working, and most resilient and practical person I have ever known.
She also conformed to other conservative and traditional values for women of her time. Despite her strength and independence, for instance, she passionately claimed to believe that men must be the head of their households.
She was an excellent seamstress, cook, and gardener--canning, freezing, and dehydrating enough food in autumn to last the rest of the year. She was a fierce bargain shopper, an amateur medic, and an expert forager. She did her hair and makeup everyday, the house was always clean, and there was healthy, homecooked food on the table at every meal.
Creating and maintaining a safe, happy, and healthy family seemed to be her sole ambition and primary interest in life.
Because of her utter pragmatism and devoutly traditional ways, there was one part of my grandma’s history that always confused and intrigued me. As a teenager I was impressed. As an adult, it made me think we might have more in common than was easily apparent...
My Grandma's Surprising Adventure!
In the late 1940s my grandma Avis started taking classes at Ohio State University. Soon after this, she moved to Honolulu, all alone, to study art at the University of Hawaii.
The years she spent in Honolulu--doing homework for her art classes in a bikini on the beach--seemed to be diametrically opposed to everything else I knew about her. Because of this, I had a lot of questions for her about that time in her life.
I wanted to know how she summoned the courage to break with all the conventions, values, and expectations of her family and culture, to travel--young, single and alone--to study art in Hawaii, which wasn't even a state yet.
She could describe in detail how she saved money for her travel and tuition by babysitting and sewing all her own clothes. She told charming stories of dating, attending classes, going on outings with her new friends, and eventually meeting my grandpa on Waikiki Beach. But she was never one to wax philosophical, and I was left to guess about her deeper reasons and motivations for going.
Choosing to study art is about creative expression and the love of beauty--not the pragmatism or survival of her past.
And Hawaii was an exotic destination at the time--and as far as she could get from home without a passport.
So, as far as I can tell she went in search of independence, creative expression, and adventure.
My grandma's independent spirit gave her the courage to rebel against the limited scope of her family's expectations and traditions. But it turns out she carried a lot of their values with her.
It would have been a difficult path in the 1940s for a young woman from a small town, with absolutely no money and no experience with travel. But the hard times in her early years helped her develop the strength and resilience to start a new life--alone and so far from home.
In Honolulu, she found true adventure, artistic expression, cherished memories and good friends. She also met and married the love of her life, Ken. They created a home and family very much in line with the traditional and pragmatic values of her upbringing.
Many of the traditions of our families and culture help us by providing guidelines that keep us safe and teach us the basics of life. Just like the Protective Ego-Self, tradition is not necessarily bad, but it can limit us if we give it too much control.
We can hold onto the traditions of our family and culture that bring us strength, resilience, and comfort. But we should feel free to leave behind the values and ideas from our past that create limitations and discourage us from following our passions and dreams. We can't let our Internalized Voice of Tradition keep us from following our own path.✪
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