The empty, derelict, unfinished sanctuary stands bang in the middle of a desolate village. Its potential peers through the weed and grass flourishing in its gaping cracks. My heart sinks and my body laughs at the ephemeral boldness that got me started with such a grandiose project.
What was I thinking, resolving to step into my fear of writing, and starting this blog?
Who did I think I was? Who was I fooling?
Looking around me, I’m surrounded by even grander mansions, built with the imaginations and energies of men and women bestowed a new year, another chance to dream. Dreaming on. Before reality and their stubborn past selves gripped them at the ankles, snapped them back into “reality”, grounded them on humble earth and cut the lives of their (new year’s) resolutions short – erased their visions of progress, better selves, fuller lives.
But thank God, I get to revisit this village again this year. It’s my second chance.
Will this turn out to be an annual pilgrimage to my lofty dreams, where I get to laugh at myself and move on with “reality”? Or will I steel myself and rejoice in the drudgery of completing this sanctuary, this place that I know deep down, is of healing, promise, growth, even impact.
I cannot say with certainty. The least I can do, today, is step in, (yet again!) and build from where I left.
2014 was, for me, one of my most challenging years, yet. I began with such buoyancy, becoming vulnerable and inviting those who dared to “step into fear” with me. Sadly, I failed at putting myself out there. Not just with this blog.
Today, I usher you into my world of reflection, emptiness, struggle, epiphany, growth. Hope.
“It’s all inside here.”
These are the words that mark the beginning of my journey towards what I would consider my “authentic” self. And these are the wisest words that I heard in 2014.
They came at a time when I knew I needed a fresh boost of energy and perspective in order to continue living a life of purpose and passion. Towards the end of my first year at Oxford on the Masters in African Studies, I felt incredibly burnt out. For five years, I had been studying anthropology, history, social theory and running Lead Us Today as a full-time student. Admirable as it might have been to many people, it had taken its toll on me. By June of last year, the raging fire that propelled me had died down to a mere flicker.
One morning, I was struck with an epiphany – I could take a year off and come back on the MBA program fully rejuvenated. Building from my reflections on being stuck in a privilege trap as a young person who had studied away from Zimbabwe for nearly a decade, I had such splendid ideas for what I would do during a year off school. I would get a job teaching Math, History or Geography, in a rural school where I could get a pulse on the lives of people I hoped to impact going forward. I would teach in a Shona-speaking part of Zimbabwe so I could master the language. Most importantly, I would banish myself from the world with virtually no access to email or Facebook. With only my imagination and a trunk load of good books for company, I could finally “discover my soul.”
With verve and a bright sparkle in my eye, I shared this plan with a very close friend; feet dancing on the floor, hands spread out, eyes lifted to the ceiling where an idyllic scene from my perfect year was painted.
Now, this friend is quite special. You know, those friends with whom you hesitate to share your truest goals and plans because they are always so real with you? After my dramatic delivery, I lowered my head, turned it in the direction of where she was sitting and saw her underwhelmed face. My body went limp and I dragged myself towards her, waiting for her to, true to expectation, shatter my plans.
She said to me, calmly:
“Dee, I don’t know why you think you’ll find yourself in books or through other people. You can’t find answers outside of yourself.”
She motioned in circles in front of my chest with her palm, and then delivered the words that mark what has become another turning point in my life:
“It’s all inside here”.
Of course, I initially resisted this.
Certainly, I needed other people to help me think through this point of deflation that I was enduring. Not just friends, but great thinkers, people who had deeply contemplated life and its complexities. In my mind, at that time, all I needed to do was immerse myself in their immortalized words and emerge from my year off, fully refreshed and rejuvenated.
I eventually didn’t take a year off and, without doing it consciously, I reached into the depths of my soul and story. After a few months, I found myself at a place I had revisited for years: my bedroom when I was fifteen.
Many people have heard me share about the first “turning point” in my life – the night when I was fifteen and I stood in front of a mirror, tried on all of my clothes, rating myself on a scale of 1 to 10 for each outfit that I wore and received self-assessed scores of no more than three. As a teenager, I felt inadequate. I didn’t feel like I really belonged anywhere. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of some of the best things in life, both superficial and meaningful. But after that one night, I carved out a space for me to belong and derive meaning and worth. I worked hard at school, started a number of initiatives, said “yes” to every invitation. Ten years on, I recognize this one night as the birthplace for much of what I have contributed and accomplished.
But for the first time in ten years, I began to peer into the underside of this seemingly inspiring story. I had done all these things just to feel adequate and worthy. To fill a void. The locus of my identity, meaning-making and worth became external to me. I had conflated being with achievement. It was through achievement that I defined self.
As I’ve worked through what’s “inside me” over the last few months, one of my biggest lessons has been to never conflate being and achievement. I am not what I accomplish. You are not what you accomplish.
Problematically, we have developed language to facilitate the conflation of being and achievement in the sense that I see myself, and introduce myself saying: I am the Founder of Lead Us Today. I am a Harvard alumnus. I am a Rhodes Scholar.
But I am not those things. I am Dalumuzi Mhlanga who happens to have graduated from Harvard University and won the Rhodes Scholarship. My achievements can (and I would argue, should) only be attached very loosely, to my being. I cannot be my achievements.
It’s only on realizing this that I confronted, squarely, the root of my burnout. For too long, I had been working overtime and pushing myself incredibly hard to fill a void generated by feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, low self-esteem as a teenager. This realization led to liberation: living not based on an externally located sense of self but to constantly draw from my internal resources and, in that way, bring more of my “authentic” self into the world.
My personal challenge for 2015 is to build an internal reservoir of worth every day. I think of it as, in an almost literal sense, building a large dam right in the middle of my chest, from which I draw meaning and “authentic” identity. This doesn’t mean that I’ll never set my eyes on big things. Not at all. I imagine the visible aspects of the things I do will remain more or less the same. The key difference for me will be where the drive for what I do comes from: a healthier, more secure internally located sense of self and worth.
In my short life, one thing I have learnt is that we all have our struggles. Often, quite serious personal struggles. Many of these struggles revolve around doing various things to fill voids created by any number of experiences we encounter through our journeys of life. As fate will have it, a single experience can be the birthplace of, on one hand, achievement and happiness, and on the other, pain and struggle. From my own experience, revisiting those key experiences that have shaped us into the people we become and dwelling in their complexity, though difficult, can be incredibly rewarding, liberating and meaningful.
Books and other people can help you make sense of your struggles. But like my friend said, we often carry the responsibility to unlock our empty, derelict, ignored pasts that we can turn into sanctuaries of hope. We often carry the responsibility to purposefully dwell in those difficult pasts. Really dwell in them and contemplate how and why we let them shape and limit possibilities in our lives. And then begin the process of making peace with our pasts and build on them, as foundations, for much fuller lives.
For me, the incredibly powerful words of T.S. Eliot in his poem, Little Gidding, really encapsulate my journey in 2014, and the one that lies ahead:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.