The fourth word at our creativity conference with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell was PERMISSION.
Every place has a set of rules, a code of conduct and expectations. We find them in our schools, churches, families, and culture. No matter where we are, we know what’s okay and what’s not, what will get us affirmation, or draw condemnation. And if we don’t know, we figure it out pronto.
This was certainly true in my house growing up. We were “good kids” and “good Catholics” and those simple descriptors came with a whole list of “dos and don’ts.” They covered everything from our physical appearance to religious practices, academic expectations to moral obligations, but I’m not complaining. In my childhood home, I learned about hard work, critical thinking, the importance of family and the steadfastness of the Spirit. In fact, I’m trying to pass those traditions on to my own kids as well.
But I’m also trying to leave a couple things behind, like shame about my body, sexuality and femininity, as well as my fear of speaking up to authority. I don’t believe those were values my parents’ consciously chose to give me. For the most part, they were just transmitted from their own cultural and religious upbringing right on down to us.
But what I have learned while making my own home and my own rules is that we will never move forward, or evolve if we don’t transgress the rules and expectations of those around us. Those norms exist to stabilize the social order, not to aid the flourishing of human consciousness. If we want to grow up, become adults in the truest sense of the word, we have to challenge what we are told. We have to decide what works for us and what doesn’t and for that, apparently, we need PERMISSION.
Unfortunately, too many of us think PERMISSION comes from an outside source. We spend years, sometimes even decades, waiting for an authority figure to tell us that we can challenge what we were taught, but it’s not true. We are the adults and we have the inner authority to make those decisions! We are the ones who sign the permission slip, not the ones who have to work up the courage to ask if we can go on the field trip!
In the decade since she published Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert said the single thing people seek from her most often is PERMISSION. She gave herself PERMISSION to shake up her life, and they want her to give them PERMISSION as well.
- Can I leave my unhappy marriage?
- Can I not have kids?
- Can I travel alone?
- Can I go back to school and pursue my dream?
- Can I be spiritual, but not religious?
- Can I listen to my heart and soul and NOT just the people around me?
Obviously, LG says, YOU CAN, but should you? That’s the real question.
But you’ll never ask the real question if you don’t think you have PERMISSION to do so.
Let me just say, along with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, you have PERMISSION!
You have PERMISSION to take every belief, value, assumption and stereotype out of your mental closet. You can hold them; turn them over; find out where they came from. Do they still deserve pride of place in your mind and heart? Does the ideal you’re clinging to still align with what you know to be true of yourself and the world around you? Is that belief/value/assumption still serving you? How about those around you? How would your life look differently if you let it go?
LG and RB have both rearranged their mental, emotional and spiritual furniture many times over the last decade and I have never seen two people who live so joyfully and compassionately in such spacious houses. I’m still working on my remodeling job, but it’s getting roomier all the time.
I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of rigid Catholic doctrine and more than a few pieces of false Christianity – all of which served to keep some people in and put some people out – outside of Love, connection and worthiness, which is totally unacceptable to me today, but totally normal to me in my younger years. I keep pulling out ideas I have about what it means to be a good parent and to raise successful kids. (In both cases, perfection has transformed into intention, effort and execution.) As I reach middle age, I find myself again questioning what it means to be happy, healthy and put-together. (Again perfection has given way to grateful, present efforting) and I keep re-evaluating my relationship to FEAR and how it informs my decisions. (A daily reminder: FEAR is there for risk assessment, not project management!)
Each time I put one of my beliefs back on the shelf, it’s been adjusted. It’s less rigid, more flexible and ultimately stronger. It’s been through a refining process, getting rid of what was unnecessary, or did not resonate with my hard-earned knowledge and experience of the world and the God who made it.
But there’s a caveat if you are going to start a remodeling process of your own! “Waking up,” becoming more conscious, whatever you want to call it – is likely to generate some negative feelings. If you step out of your familial, or cultural norms, you are going to meet resistance – even if you are moving towards something that is intrinsically good for you and the world. Think about the first kids to question segregation in the South – not a popular change of view with their parents! Galileo was arrested; Darwin was denounced; Jesus was crucified! Institutions, corporations, and the people you love might condemn you, but you have PERMISSION to break the rules in order to live a fuller, more authentic life. And the bottom line is that you can spend time explaining your process to those around you, or not.
For the people I Love and whom I know Love me, I take the time. My mother and I have had many heartfelt conversations about the teachings of the traditional Catholic Church, especially those I no longer agree with, like their stance on homosexuality, female ordination, and the legitimacy of patriarchy. My father and I talk quite frequently about the US educational system, white privilege and politics. Tim and I battled for years over how to parent out kids and we still debate our family finances, marital expectations, and professional goals. Over and over again, we take out our positions and try to identify what needs to stay, because it is of ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE to both of us, and what needs to go, because it is simply a carry-over from our family of origin, or cultural expectations. These aren’t always easy conversations, but I can’t imagine not having them. When we make a decision, it has both of our signatures on the bottom line.
Elizabeth Gilbert made it clear that she is happy to keep handing out PERMISSION slips to people who ask for them, but what she would truly love is for people to find the inner authority to write their own PERMISSION slip. Each and every one of us can set ourselves free from the messages, beliefs, and narratives that limit us and keep us from living authentically.
To that end, the fourth letter LG asked us to write was from the Boss, the greatest authority figure in our lives. It could be our father, mother, priest, rabbi, pastor, or elementary school principal. When we do something that we know “they” won’t approve of, who is the “they?” That’s the voice we’re channeling here. There is no greater, or higher authority than the person who is writing this letter and this person is giving you a PERMISSION slip to ask questions, to be who you are, to keep growing up so you can live the fullest life possible.
This is how the letter begins:
I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:
While I hate to disappoint, I cannot transcribe my original letter here in full. I have finally reached my threshold for vulnerability and embarrassment. A few lines are all I can offer.
I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:
Be yourself and Love yourself. …
You are free to NOT listen to all the voices in your head about what is worthy to do.…
You are free to be thin-skinned and not muscle through. ….
You can move at your own pace….
Everything does not have to be “just right” for everything to be okay…
ALK, The Boss of You
At first I didn’t think I needed another PERMISSION slip. I signed my first one long ago, when I was nineteen, single and pregnant. I had transgressed all the rules about what it meant to be a good, Catholic girl, so I started making up my own and guess what? They all began with Love and still do to this day. (You can catch up on part of my adoption story here.) But I have to admit, writing this letter was helpful anyway. Anything we can do to step into greater freedom and away from fear is a win in my book. And I hope you will write yourself a PERMISSION slip and see what you get to do next!