I was recently introduced to virtual reality. Sitting down in a revolving chair in my office, I placed a light headset over my face and headphones over my ears. Suddenly, I was transported to Liberia where a young woman named Decontee Davis grippingly shared how Ebola ravaged her hometown in 2014. Even though my physical body wasn’t actually in Africa, the vividness of the landscape and realness of what I was witnessing made me feel as though I had been transported to a faraway land.
It is a land where suffering and ease, sickness and health, sorrow and celebration grow up side by side. A land filled with struggles wildly different than my reality, but containing people with emotions that I have no difficulty relating to. A land that felt both incredibly real and simultaneously light years away due to my acute awareness of the screen attached to my face.
Ironically, a few days after this experience I had an incredibly vivid dream about virtual reality (how meta). In the dream, a professional was prepping me before I entered my altered state: My toenail polish was removed, my head was shaved, and I was dressed from head to toe in a hazmat suit. Obviously, my subconscious was aware of the otherworldliness that was about to ensue. I was transported through a vacuum tunnel to the other side, which in this particular scenario was a wild dance party at a club in New Orleans.
You thought I was going to learn the cure to cancer or the solution to loneliness, didn’t you?
Instead, these oddities laid the foundation for a newfound mental perspective that I carried with me into a coaching session. My client, an utterly delightful human being, had shared his inability to know what makes him happy, to understand his own needs, and to make choices for himself without feeling guilty or self-indulgent. Upon unpacking this information, he alluded to the fact that taking risks had never been a part of his vocabulary. Stepping outside of the “shoulds” and “ought to’s” didn’t seem to fit within the blueprint of how he had always been told his personal house should be built.
The concrete had been poured, the wood framing had been set, and yet here he was screaming inside that the layout felt confined, stifled, and alien.
Years ago, I highlighted the following sentiment in a book so worn that I can no longer read the title or author:
Doing what makes you feel good about yourself is really the opposite of self-indulgence. It doesn’t mean gratifying an isolated part of you; it means satisfying your whole self, and this includes feelings and ties and responsibilities you have to others, too. Self-indulgence means satisfying the smallest part of you, and that only temporarily.
During our time together, my client mentioned an event that he was attending out of social obligation on Saturday. Although he was filled with dread, he had already bought a gift for the host, RSVP’d, and organized his transportation to and from the gathering. In his mind, there was no alternative to showing up. This thought was of course shared with me after he vividly described his current feelings of being depleted, overwhelmed, and like a shell of himself.
Immediately upon hearing this information, I opened my computer, asked my client to sign into his e-mail, and draft an email to the host. These were the words he wrote with shaky hands:
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I’m so honored that you invited me to your party this weekend. I have had two incredibly long weeks at work and I feel exhausted. I need to recharge and take care of myself and tomorrow is the only day I am able to do so. I am sorry I won’t be able to attend and look forward to connecting soon.
With a gentle nudge from my staring eyes, he sent the e-mail and sat there dumbfounded in his seat. Without saying a word, he closed his eyes. I humbly and knowingly looked on as my client began to experience the earthquake that comes when our perceptions of reality are challenged and when everything that we believe begins to shake and crumble.
I thumb back to this passage in my weathered, dog-eared book:
If we cannot love ourselves, where will we draw our love for anyone else? People who do not love themselves can adore others, because adoration is making someone else big and ourselves small. They can desire others, because desire comes out of a sense of inner incompleteness, which demands to be filled. But they cannot love others, because love is an affirmation of the living, growing being in all of us. If you don’t have it, you can’t give it.
Picturing myself those weeks ago, all alone in my experience with a device strapped over my face, I begin to wonder if there really is any such thing as reality. And if so, why do many of us create a reality based on cultural norms, familial obligations, social constructs, wildly untrue thoughts, and rules that we didn’t write for ourselves? No wonder we feel the perils of exhaustion, stress, and anxiety in leading lives that are not our own and yet not anyone else’s to claim.
When we make the active choice to turn away from our own hearts, our own values, and our own self-care it is almost impossible to not turn toward the magnitude of distracting numbing agents that prevent us from fully feeling the feelings of the living. In doing so, we are allowing our souls to walk around outside of our bodies, when in fact, our bodies are the container for our magnificent spirits to shine.
As we begin to go deeper and deeper into the land of the unimaginable through technology and numerous other forums, may you have the courage to question everything around you. May you listen to your body. May you respect your personal boundaries. May you invest in your self-care as a rich opportunity of selflessness. May you feel confident saying no and delighted when you say yes. Most importantly, may you make your own damn rules and live by them moment to moment.
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