Speeches For An Empty Room: A Life Worth Living

Editor’s Note: this short speech for young people originally appeared on one of my earlier blog and while somewhat earnest, remains the best advice I have for young people – NI

I think perhaps the most important thing you can tell a young person is that they must learn to resist the pressure around them to be silent. Whether by design or through unhappy accident – silence allows the world around you to paint it’s ideas and desires over top of you; to essentially create an idea of you that is more “real” to those around you than who you actually are. Furthermore the great danger in this is that your own thoughts and behaviors *will* be altered by how you are treated by the society around you. By staying silent, by blending in, by avoiding rocking the boat you make yourself at once a blank slate and an empty vessel… this state of being then cannot last, as nature abhors a vacuum and before long you’ll find yourself filling up with ideas, opinions and attitudes that represent a mere idea of you rather than who you actually are.

While few would argue that a full life can be achieved without being true to oneself, the simple truth of the matter is that the people around us generally don’t like it when our behavior fails to match their preconceived ideas about who we are. They react poorly to change and they will typically fight very hard to convince you that their notion of who you are is more valid than the idea of self you are now expressing. Although these attempts may not be overt, and they may take many forms – the end result is “a lot of bad noise” and a strong societal encouragement to re-take up our assigned role. This in turn causes negative stimuli and when combined with our natural desire to be loved and accepted, turns into a self perpetuating cycle of adaptive behavior and deeply rooted self-deceptions.

To say this is a “vicious cycle” would be a massive understatement. So many people walk through life feeling as if they are bystanders to their own existence. They feel as though they don’t matter, they don’t stand out, they have no purpose and they have no larger voice than their own internal monologue. This state of existence is horrible, depressing and deeply terrifying both to them and to those who love them but in reality the problem is not internal so much as external. At every developmental step and during every waking moment even unto their adult lives – they have been encouraged to avoid individualism, to be seen and not heard, to conform to societal norms that profess to hold individuality as a sacred right but then actively seek to stamp out such individualism in it’s youngest, brightest, most hopeful children. In essence, the right to decide who you are is reserved only for the lucky, brilliant few and although nobody can quite put a finger on who those people will be in the future – society around you seems quite certain that it won’t be you.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole bloody, great mess however is that the “truth” society and the people around us seek to enforce is actually the “lie” that binds so many of us to suffering. The ideas, feelings, desires, expressions and attitudes that reside deep inside of us are *FAR* more representative of who we are and more importantly who we COULD be than the seemingly omnipresent force of societal pressure could ever hope to be. The things that go on inside of our heads come from a *real* place of infinite potential; while most of the forces that pressure us into conformity merely represent a pattern or idea of what life ought to be like – usually cooked up by some octogenarian official from a long forgotten generation before us.

The question then becomes how to escape the trap and while I cannot profess to know all things for all people, I know that in my life any modicum of true happiness I’ve obtained has come from fighting for who I am and what I believe in. In order to be accepted for who you are in a world that encourages you to be anything but, it becomes necessarily to shout your ideas, opinions and feelings from the rooftops to be heard. You must constantly define and redefine your ideas, attitudes and self-image for those around you – so that they do not for one moment feel any temptation to define these things for you. Furthermore, this will not be frictionless – you must be prepared to lose false friends, to separate from family members and to be ostracized from certain social circles. You will step into the ring a proud champion of your own personhood over and over; you will leave the contest bloody every single time. There will be pain, there will be loss, there will be suffering. You must accept that this is the price of defining who you are and you must always remember that although you are bruised and battered emotionally – you have not been broken.

I don’t know if there’s anyone out there reading this, and if you are reading it – I can’t pretend to have a clue who you are. What I can say is that if who you are isn’t who you want to be, maybe it’s time to revisit the question of who you are in the first place? There’s no such thing as a second chance because that presupposes the world was prepared to give you a first chance anyways. You must fight… and little grasshopper: you must win.

– Nina Illingworth