Consider the following story to be an operating manual for Kora’s brain and a fable. Every story has a moral, and hopefully this one will help you.
In the past two months it’s been overwhelming how drastically my world has changed. “Big fish, little pond” took on a whole new meaning when I left my hometown and entered the bustling, noisy city I now call home.
Now, I’m not saying that I grew up in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with a graduating class of twenty people— quite the opposite, I had about one-thousand students in my senior class, and my high school felt like a small town itself with thirty-five-hundred teenagers shoving their way through the halls.
But, in the bubble of people who have known you since elementary school and who have seen all of your mistakes and failings, your worldview shrinks to a scope the size of a dime. There are only a handful of things that I worried about then that ever cross my mind now. Along with that, my knowledge of the world and what actually matters was skewed and limited by the circle of influence shaping my mind.
Along with a warped worldview came a distorted sense of self. I think it’s fairly uncommon for someone who grew up with a limited social circle (as most of us do) to come out of it with a stellar self esteem. Needless to say, by the end of high school I had forgotten a lot of important things about myself. I didn’t have a firm understanding of what I wanted from my life, much less who I wanted to become.
Romance, as frail and limited as it was for devout Christian teenagers, affected how I viewed myself dramatically. And since I’m not one to put undue blame on anyone who doesn’t deserve it, I will say that I allowed the majority of that mistreatment to happen through a lack of confidence in myself and my standards, along with tolerating my own anxious and codependent behaviors. In summation and putting it bluntly, I lacked conviction.
I struggled to find a reason for this years later as I reflected on some of the harder days I’ve experienced. Why in the world did I allow myself to be abused and mistreated?
The answer came to me after hours of pondering and struggling to understand the “why”. It came when, after yet more heartbreak, I was finally willing to see it— to see that I had chosen to ignore reality in favor of daydreaming.
To define a dreamer is to try and label something that continually reinvents itself. These dreamers are people who create new realities and personas, never staying in place for long. I like to think of them as fluid as the stories they create; each of them constantly reaching for a new destination, a new desire, until they create it for themselves. There is little to no consideration for the existing truths around them, as they choose to be blind.
I chose to be blind. I reached out toward the fantasies that I invented, straining to create what I so desperately desired. In doing so I allowed people and things into my life that destroyed my sense of self, if only so I could continue to keep the things that fed my dreams.
Growing up Christian, it was impressed upon me from a young age that the pinnacle of our mortal existence is to have a family— to be married. As a young girl and then a young woman I viewed the idea of an eternal marriage sanctioned by God as the most important thing I would ever achieve. A worthy and spiritual man who loved me the way men loved women in fairytales was the ultimate dream that dominated all others in my mind.
Marriage in itself and the Christian belief system are not the issue here. The problem for me arose when my desire to fill a specific role overcame everything else that I had at one time dreamed of and yearned for. I chose to close my mind’s eye to the other things that made life worth living, and as years passed I forgot so many things that I had once reached for.
Senior year of high school I met a boy who fell in love with me as quickly as I began to love him. I remember the dreams of marriage in a few years once we had settled into college life, and the constant desire for life to speed up. I reached and reached for that distant future, eyes still closed.
I served a religious service mission for my church for a year and a half, kissing my sweet boyfriend goodbye for the next two years when he left on his own mission as well. It took a year and a half of being without him to see through the fog of love and realize it wasn’t right. I still remember the day I took off my promise ring, my heart aching.
I would wake in the middle of the night weeping, the terror of letting go of that future, that dream, working its way into my sleep. I didn’t want to let go of him, of the future suspended between us. An image vividly displayed itself in my mind one day of the boy I loved falling from a cliff, hands stretched toward me as I let him go. There wasn’t anything I could do but watch him fall.
Then, from the dark abyss waiting beneath him a large hand materialized, catching him before he plummeted into blackness. It occurred to me that it was God’s hand, and He was telling me that He was in control, and that we were both going to be safe. I could let go.
I released my grip, and the dream folded up neatly and tucked itself into the back of my mind, where I could hold onto it for a little longer without entirely letting it fade away.
I’ve been in love twice since coming home from my mission. The painful kind of love that I know isn’t how it’s going to be when I find that person waiting for me somewhere… but nevertheless, it’s still devastating to the heart. Both times I desperately tried to force it into the shape of something that would carry me into forever, and each time I lost more and more of myself.
I remember when, still captivated by the freshness of a new love, I more recently explained to one of these men (a boy, really— I don’t think either of us have really grown up yet) why I didn’t think it was crucial that I went to school. I explained how I wanted to be a good parent, a good wife, and how I wanted to put that dream first. I wanted to fill that role as perfectly as I could, and achieve that crowning jewel of my life: marriage. A happy, successful marriage with around four or six kids to throw into the mix.
His eyes were intense as he listened to me, his hands wrapped around mine as I anxiously tried to justify my views. Then, when I finished and my heart was pounding in my ears as I waited for his thoughts, he explained his views of God.
I always thought of God as loving and all-powerful, but never had I considered viewing Him as logical— as a Man of science. One who had to have knowledge to create the beautiful world and universe that He did. There was a tangible feeling that overcame my senses as we discussed this topic, my scope widening and stretching to take in possibilities I had never explored.
“Knowledge is power,” the boy said, using the phrase I’d heard many times before. This time though, I imagined my God and my Savior, and the knowledge they needed to do their divine duties. I realized that to more effectively strive to become like Them, I needed to be further educated.
And then came the issue of my self value. I didn’t think at the time that it was as important for me to get an education, because I didn’t view my role as important as somebody else’s. I let labels and responsibilities I didn’t want slip past my guard and infiltrate my life to support the dreams that I was desperately trying to piece together.
“You have been treated as an accessory to somebody else’s success your whole life,” the boy said, gaze urgent all while his voice was gentle and encouraging, “forget about your family, forget about your stupid ex-boyfriends, and forget about your obligation to a future family you don’t even have yet— what do you want, Kora?”
I didn’t know.
I stared at the space over his shoulder, feeling distant as I combed through memories of high school and junior high, searching for the spark of inspiration that I had forgotten years before.
And then, there it was.
I was sitting in my environmental science class my ninth grade year. We were discussing career paths, and I was deep in thought, my brow furrowed as I considered my options. For as long as I could remember I wanted to be a paleontologist, and in more recent years the idea of a forensic scientist had been appealing as well. Getting a PhD and becoming a professor was also an idea, although I didn’t really know what getting a PhD meant at the time. Writing had been a passion of mine since I was in second grade, and my dream of becoming a published author one day was at the forefront of all the rest, second to that of motherhood.
I guess to be a good mom, I had thought, slowly piecing together my new vision of my future, I should be a writer. Then I can stay home with my kids, and write on the side.
Just like that, I snuffed out the sparks of excitement that arose at the thought of going to another country to dig up ancient bones, or teaching about literature in a vast lecture hall. My ambition left in an instant.
“I think I’d want to be a professor, and teach about medieval literature,” I exhaled deeply, coming back to the present as once again a new vision began to form in my mind.
Since that fateful conversation, I have enrolled in school, gotten my heart broken again, and drowned myself in work, trying to find more meaning in the life I’ve been given. I’ve begun reading more than my books filled with dragons and magic, and begun reading memoirs and literary articles on philosophical topics and theories— and each day I feel my scope continue to widen.
One such book has been especially formative in my search for the dreams that really matter: Tara Westover’s memoir, Educated. There are two passages from it that I read every single day to remind myself of the work that I’ve done to get to where I am now, and to continue remembering that the pain I’ve endured has gotten me here as well.
Tara grew up with a family ruled by a father who was mentally ill and delusional. She was never enrolled in school and didn’t get a birth certificate until she was nineteen years old. Because of this she had to teach herself trigonometry and other subjects to score a minimum of 28 on the ACT, and subsequently get accepted into BYU. She then went on to get her PhD from Cambridge, her search for knowledge never stopping.
I remember reading her story with a captivating sense of awe, deeply admiring her grit and determination to reforge her sense of self. It was when I read the following words though, that my perspective permanently changed:
“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.” (Educated, Tara Westover)
I read the words over and over again, every realization about my life that I’d collected over the last months crashing into place. Understanding, pure and bright gleamed before me. To take back what I had lost and what had been taken from me, I needed to self-create. I needed to learn. I needed school. And to break from the self-detrimental cycle of relying on other people (boys, mostly) to make my dreams a reality, I needed to build my own mind.
Since being home from my mission (for nearly a year and a half now) I have cried over multiple men and many broken dreams, and I tried so hard to force them together and cling to them. I’ve at last reached a point where my heart is tired, and my walls are sturdy and high. I’ve realized that in order to have a dream succeed, it needs to be something you have total control over, something that you can achieve on your own— I cannot continue to lean on somebody else to get me where I’m headed. And now I finally know where I want to go.
I grew up dreaming of a marriage and future family, and while I still desire that for a version of myself far in the future, I can’t achieve that on my own. Those things aren’t anything that I can actively control. Why do we focus so much of our energy on dreams and things that we can’t individually change? I can’t control when I meet the love of my life, and I can’t control whether or not I’ll have the family that I want, so why am I working myself into a fit worrying about it?
I should emphasize now that there is nothing wrong with the decision to be a stay-at-home parent, or choose another path besides education. In the world we live in today, self-creation takes many forms, and everyone dreams of different things. What we cannot do, though, is allow anyone to tell us what we should be, or what we want. This was my failing, even though I was only a kid when I decided to put my desires to the side. It was my failing to let others decide what I should do, and who I should be.
Decide for yourself who you want to be. Create your own life, take the wheel and pave your own path. I’m thankful that I learned this lesson so early in my life, but even if you’re reading this when you’re thirty, forty, even fifty or more years old, you still have time.
Once when I was a leasing agent at an apartment complex, a new resident was asking me if I would ever move back to Texas. I replied, “Oh, definitely. I’d need to be with someone who’d want to move there with me, or not be tied down at all. So, we’ll see.”
She looked at me thoughtfully, “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I said, my mind wandering to where I hoped I’d be in a few years from then.
“You’ve got a lot of years, girl,” the woman grinned, “do whatever you want. You’ve got a plenty of time.”
We’ve all been subjected to the ladder of success laid out before us by the various cultures and societies we’re a part of. They give us different achievements that “successful” people reach, and at what age or time they reach them in accordance with the others. The thing is, this is a made up and imaginary ladder. Success for me may not look like success to you, just as my dreams aren’t going to be the same as your own. Make your own ladder— a ladder that isn’t a cookie-cutter success plan inflicted on us all by trends and societal standards.
I’m still trying to figure all of this out, so this is just the beginning. But after reading what I’ve learned so far, here’s a wake up call for all of you who have forgotten your dreams and been led down a path that wasn’t the one you wanted: I have plenty of time to change direction. You have plenty of time, too. Don’t let the years and dreams pass you by. Make your life your own— make your mind your own. It’ll hurt, and it will be hard at times, but that pain is a reforging and a rebuilding from what someone else made you into, and who you created yourself to be.
“You are the series of mistakes that had to happen for you to find you.”