Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The trap of "supposed to be"

Most people spend their lives trying to be who they think they should be, instead of who they are. 
Dan Gottlieb, quadriplegic.

We go through much of our lives being told what to do. Our parents, our teachers, our bosses all give us instructions on what is expected of us in any given situation. A lot of these instructions teach us self-control and empathy, and are vital for us to function successfully in society. But a lot of times, these instructions go beyond teaching us how to be to try to tell us who to be as well. It gets to the point where the definition of success is so narrow that only very few can actually achieve it without sacrificing something of their genuine selves.

I think the problem is particularly acute in Nigerian society, where children are discouraged from even asking questions to satisfy their curiosity let alone questioning the larger direction of their lives. Much more than in other places where I have lived, there is a very clear definition in Nigeria of who one is supposed to be. The hierarchies are clearly established, one’s place is boldly marked out and the sign of adulthood is defined by putting away childish enthusiasms and settling down into the persona that has been created for you.

But I think the true mark of adulthood is in resisting expectations and stripping oneself of the layers of who you are supposed to be until you find who you are. I believe that only until you discover that thing which moves your heart, will your true life begin. Everything else is just rehearsal.

That is why fantasy is so important for me. The act of wild creation that allows an artist or a writer to create new worlds and dream up rich, vibrant characters is something that can only come when you tap into your most authentic self. It comes from a place of pure, unalloyed passion. The fire that everyone is born with but which is too often buried under layers of parental, societal and even personal expectations.

We all know someone in our lives who has chosen to break free of their expectations to live as they are. We all know that feeling of quiet envy we get when we see these people living as we wish we could – if only we weren’t so frightened. They aren’t all wild and crazy rebels living by the seat of their pants. Most times, it is in the quiet assurance of their stance and the openness of their smiles.

Don’t be under any illusions that this is easy. Finding yourself is a difficult and painful process. You will feel the pull of who you are supposed to be tugging at you with every step. There will be no shortage of people on hand to discourage you and make you feel as if you are a failure. There will even be penalties. You may not make much money and you might not be able to live in luxury. You will always be tempted to compare your life to others and lament what you think you lack. But once you begin, there’s no going back. Someone once said that the mind, once opened, can never return to its original shape. I believe it is the same for the spirit.


  1. I don't like to believe there's a specific, defined or strict destiny/person for everyone. I believe our acquired strengths or circumstances sprout out a range of choices which if we work towards we can achieve various degrees of success. Eg an orphaned older son wouldn't quit his 9-5 to pursue a career as a rapper leaving his younger siblings hungry in the guise that it's his calling. Likewise who's to stop a widow and widower from getting married after loosing their 'God ordained one and only better half'.

  2. You're right, not everyone has the opportunity to choose their circumstances. But I believe that if you settle for the expediency, you doom yourself to a life half-lived. If you take the time out to discover your passions and pursue them wholeheartedly, success will come.

  3. Well written as usual Chinelo...