I've read about inmates who are paroled after a long incarceration who purposefully commit a crime so that they can return to jail. Freedom is overwhelming. I thought of these poor souls as I was finishing the latest JR Ward offering in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series, The Chosen. You know how much I love me some JR Ward, and I wasn't disappointed—either by the story or the food for thought it provided. This book centers on the forbidden love between Layla, and Xcor. It's a complicated backstory, but suffice to it say that these two give Romeo and Juliet a run for their money and Layla gets her robes in a veritable twist trying to work it all out. And as Layla is transformed by the events of the story, she is called to find herself—to determine who she is underneath her roles and responsibilities. This is a theme I wrote about very recently, and it's one close to my heart. This week, in The Chosen, Layla is stripped of her stint as a modern-day Vestal Virgin, serving the vampire deity and living a life of strict structure and function. Layla's role as a mother is also threatened, and her dreams of becoming a mate are thwarted. She's in a position of total nakedness in front of herself, of complete freedom from all that bounded her and all that defined her. Layla quickly realizes that with such freedom comes the "obligation of self-discovery." Heavy shit for sure.
Layla realizes that none of us can claim the freedom to choose our paths if we have no idea what our options are. If we live in accordance with the expectations of society, our parents, spouses or employers, then we may or may not be living a life we've chosen for ourselves. We have no way of knowing whether we're simply lemmings following a known or anonymous leader, or independent agents exercising our God-given free will because we've never had to—or wanted to—color outside of the lines.
Personally, I suck at staying in the box and have always preferred to draw more like Picasso than Rembrandt: I'm heavily invested in my identity as rebel with a cause. Anything that smacks of conformity is kryptonite to me. But, after reading about Layla's plight, I wonder whether I'm a badass like Xcor, or delusional, like Donald Trump?
I think Layla is right—it's not a choice if we have only tried it one way and we are unwilling or unable to do things differently. I've eschewed both the domestic goddess and dedicated career woman tracks, rejecting labels and expectations. I've told myself I took the road less traveled, but maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe it's the road less traveled because all the normal people gave it a wide berth. Maybe labels and expectations can help us find ourselves, but we don’t know that because we've never even tried them on for size.
I've long prided myself on my overactive imagination and my self-perceived ability to do what others can't. I've called myself a pure-bred race horse—high maintenance and high performance. But what if that's just another way of saying I'm a spoiled brat who's prone to histrionics and that people put up with me because it's easier than fighting with the problem child?
Recently, I've wanted to ditch the diva and hunker down in my creative cave with a plan and the discipline to implement it. Turns out no can do. Even when the taskmaster is myself—maybe because the taskmaster has no external accountability—my ability to color inside the lines has failed me completely (assuming I ever had any). I find myself longing for some lines—so that I can define myself in relation to them, just like the prison bars for those jailbirds who can't handle freedom.
In The Chosen, Layla is challenged to identify ways to fill her hours with pursuits that are meaningful to her and for her. It's quite the tall order. So many of us fill our time with either obligations or distractions that when we are finally given the freedom to choose, we have no ability beyond that which we know and with which we are comfortable. Layla wonders if her "adventure of exploration and enlightenment" is a blessing or a burden. I think it's a bit of both.
A little freedom has been called a dangerous thing. That's likely true. It's more dangerous than total freedom, actually, because a little freedom seduces us into thinking we want more and thus fighting or longing for the same. A lot of freedom is safer for those who wish to control, because most of us will run screaming from the room when confronted with an abundance of choices. It's too overwhelming and leads to paralysis.
Finding ourselves is much more complicated than finding Nemo. Finding Nemo provides a structure and an objective as well as metrics and a built-in system of rewards and punishments. Finding ourselves means tearing up the roadmaps, turning off our GPS, and playing our own personal game of hot and cold. I began to move away from my new career in Natural Health. I felt warmer. I tried to go back to consulting work. That felt colder. I began a novel. Hotter. I stopped working on it. Colder. I got a part-time job offer. Warmer. Maybe. I'll have to get closer to that one before I’m certain.
But that's what it means to be free to find ourselves. I realize we might consider this a young person's pursuit, but I think it's one a thoughtful person returns to again and again over the course of a life well lived. We find ourselves when we are faced with adversity. We do it again when circumstances change. Or we should. In fact, we should be looking for ourselves on the regular if we're doing it right. And finding ourselves, at least on occasion.
I love JR Ward. It is my fondest wish that someday I will get a chance to speak with her in person to talk about the many deep themes in her work, and the many hours of pleasure her books have provided. Mostly, I want to tell her and the other amazing authors I read and write about how much they've helped me find myself.