The image of that morning is still so vivid.
It was an early morning in a posh part of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata. It had been raining. Flood waters had receded leaving behind muck dotted with green coconut shells and dead cockroaches. Their corpses lay belly up. A girl walking to school was counting reflections in the puddles. Of buildings. Of street lights. Of a moon she couldn’t find. The counting stopped when she saw street children eating out of a rubbish bag. Street dogs milled about. Their barks sounded more like long shrieks. The children, unperturbed kept emptying the rubbish bag rummaging for food. An older child gave a younger one something discoloured. The little child chewed on it. Perhaps it was a vegetable peel or a scrap of paper.
The passerby was all of four years old. That night, still unsettled by the scene she witnessed in the morning, the little girl asked her parents and their visiting friends ‘why can’t these children sit on a table like you and me and eat?’
Over a decade later that ‘little girl’ moved to the UK and over two decades later she had completed her PhD and was living a fulfilling life in the UK. But she still remembered that morning so clearly. The image from her four year old self and other similar images had become a reel of reminder in her mind; a reminder that she wanted to reach out to children in the country of her childhood who were severely deprived. So while working in the UK she began conducting workshops with children in Kolkata’s notorious red light district on biannual trips to India. When she saw the positive difference her workshops were making to the lives of the children, she gave up her life in the UK and returned to India with a mission to reach out to more children faced with the scourge of deprivation and abuse.
That four year old girl who grew up to bid adieu a life she loved to answer a calling that she felt was truest to herself, was me.
In India, since my return, I have often faced ridiculing questions, covert and overt rejection and disapproval of the madness to my method. How could I possibly leave a life in the UK? And return to India? And that too not to take up a lucrative job but to dedicate myself to working with underserved children? How could I ‘waste’ my PhD doing such work? Have I gone mad? These are just some of the incessant questions I’m asked when people in India juxtapose my background with my calling.
But I know my efforts and my dedication have meaningfully transformed the lives of well over 200 children. Their children will not be in the situation I found them in. And that to me is what leaving footprints is all about.
It takes an insane amount of courage to continue doing the work I’m doing. But it is my story, a story that I reclaim, each day, for myself.
Each of us owes it to ourselves to reclaim our story for ourselves.
But why is ‘this reclaiming’ or, in other words, being our authentic self so vital? It is fundamentally important because it helps you get more of what you want in life. Being less authentic helps you get what others want of you in life.
Yet we often relegate being authentic to the back because the process of being authentic might mean that at times or at many a time you won’t be conforming to the status quo. Conforming is not just about the pressure to fit in on the outside – how you dress, walk, talk, eat, socialise but the most crushing pressure is felt when there is a need to conform from within when you are not entirely in agreement with, convinced by, or believe in, what you are conforming to. This creates stress and inhibitions. It lowers self esteem. It takes away from self confidence. It clouds your clarity; your sense of direction and purpose in life.
When we try and identify with what we are not we create a fictional self.
This causes stress because there is a constant tension between who we are and who we are portraying ourselves to be. Whereas with being authentic, though you might challenge people around you, your life path becomes clearer.
The process will bring up challenges. But life is a bag of challenges anyways so why not make a conscious decision to take on those challenges that are truest to yourself because in taking on these challenges you gift yourself the greatest opportunities for self growth; for you to author your life instead of living a life that plays to the script of others for you. The journey is yours not of anyone else to live through you. So reclaim it to make it your fulfilling journey. And as Nietzsche said, if when you dance people think you are mad, it’s just that they can’t hear the music.
To learn transformative steps to ‘practice’ making your ‘self’ awareness a part of everyday life, come along to the DrivenWoman workshop. Be prepared to have fun!
This is a guest post from Dr Priya Virmani. She's a Political and Economic Analyst who writes for The Guardian and The New Statesman. As a Social Entrepreneur she founded Paint Our World, a Charitable Trust that uses innovative psychological workshops as a tool to heal underserved children who have been through trauma like rape, child abuse and becoming orphaned.