I Get to Decide
by Jennifer Paros
Visions are worth fighting for. Why spend your life making someone else’s dreams?
~ Tim Burton
I’m not certain when I first heard the phrase, “You’re not the boss of me!” It might have been while working at a daycare years ago. Maybe I heard it from the determined 4 year old Ella who greeted me, my first day there, wearing a long strand of beads and an air of leadership. Or maybe it came later from my own children. One way or the other, it was spoken by a child: someone newer to this world, strong and clear in the awareness that we are, ultimately, in charge of ourselves.
The first day my oldest son got on a school bus to attend kindergarten I was struck by the 0% influence I had over his day to come. Though still such a very small person, he was off to make his own decisions; he would be cooperative or not, play or not, be friendly or not. It would be his own volition, focus, desire, instinct – his own self that would call the shots – no matter what I had taught him or how others might instruct him.
Back in my college days, my art professor didn’t want us asking, “What should I draw next?” She knew each idea could flow naturally from the last. We were to be connected to our deep interests and desires so that source would be the one informing our choices, not some random, external hunt for something to do. My teacher knew that in order to sustain a meaningful relationship to one’s work, one has to sustain a meaningful relationship to one’s self – the best resource and boss.
So, if you are not the boss of me and I am, how do I define this genuine “I” who can guide my authentic way in the world? There is a school of thought that says what we’ve lived “makes us who we are.” There is another that declares that what we’ve lived “does not define us.” Whichever we choose to believe, we are the deciders; we define ourselves from the inside-out or the outside-in. We have final personal authority over how we identify and express who we are. Without this human feature we would never witness the unique characteristics, perspectives, and abilities that fill the world. Though conformity is a frequent societal request, for the sake of personal and collective fulfillment it must, in many ways, be denied.
A primary function of art and thought is to liberate the individual from the tyranny of his culture in the environmental sense and to permit him to stand beyond it in autonomy of perception and judgment.
~ Beverly Sills
In the news recently, there was controversy surrounding North Carolina’s new law requiring transgender men and women to use the government owned public bathrooms that correlate with the sexes documented on their birth certificates. Attorney General Loretta Lynch argued against this law saying the state was trying to “legislate identity.” Identity refers to who someone is. Sometimes we use our names, what we do, and our life stories as our identities. Sometimes those references are considered mostly surface, for names can be changed, jobs quit, and stories forgotten or altered.
The transgender movement has value even beyond the specificity of the individual lives it serves; it begs the question: Do I get to decide who I am or do you get to tell me? This is an opportunity for greater clarity for all of us. If we are to be defined from the outside – from physicality, external assessment and expectation, the concept of personal autonomy is rendered meaningless.
In films and books, there isn’t a compelling story without characters striving to be their true selves. There is no interest or dynamism without individuals aware of their individuality and the value of their own point of view. The beauty of writing or creating anything is we give ourselves permission to focus intently on who we are, what we know deeply, how we see the world, what we most wish to share. This license is what liberates the singular voices of our beloved artists, writers, and musicians to contribute. This is what liberates us all.
We can try to assign identity from the outside-in, but we’re only working against ourselves. For within each of us is the voice that shouts, “You are not the boss of me!” This is the first cry of one ready and eager to create his/her own life, his/her own work, and his/her own way. This is the assertion of one who gets to decide.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.