Full text of author Justine Musk’s talk: The art of the deep yes at TEDxOlympicBlvdWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Justine Musk – Author
I have a confession to make. When I was a little girl, about eight years old, I wrote obnoxious things in my diary; things like ‘life is so exciting when you’re someone like me, good at school and writing and sports. And when I grow up, I will be a world-famous novelist and one day, I will rule the world.’
Actually, I never wrote down that I would rule the world but I thought it because I was that kind of kid. I wanted to be great or a gig as a soap opera actress but I would settle for greatness.
And then one day, a few years later, when I was maybe 12 or 13, I found that same diary when I was cleaning out the drawers beneath my waterbed, this was the era of waterbeds. And I saw those scrawled words of my younger self. I felt mortified, I could not believe how deluded and egocentric I had clearly been and I thought I need to destroy the evidence. So, I threw the diary into this big garbage bag with the rest of my junk and I never saw it again.
Recently, I came across a quote by the wonderful singer Édith Piaf. She said ‘I had a very high opinion of myself, perhaps with good reason’ and that kind of blew me away because we’re a woman, not just to think that and believe that but to say that out loud, that’s a ovum.
Because modesty is a feminine virtue and one thing I’ve noticed in my conversations with and about women reading books and magazines about women, listening to other people talk about women is that the culture seems to take it as a given that women as a group have rather low self-esteem and a lot of this is attributed to the fact that bombarded as we are by this insane beauty standard, most of us do not look like supermodels but for the record, Edith Piaf did not consider herself beautiful either. She said, and this is another quote, ‘I’m ugly, I’m not Venus. I have sagging breasts, a low-slung ass and little drooping buttocks, but I can still get men.’
I love this because this to me demonstrates the power of what I have come to think of as the deep yes.
The deep yes is the right to dream your dreams and live an authentic life, as the hero of your own unfolding epic. It is an awareness of your imperfections and the knowledge that you are fabulous anyway. And somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13, I lost mine. I misplaced it. Somewhere along the lines, my deep yes got drowned out by other voices, external voices that told me I was too much, I thought too much, I read too much. I used too many big words.
Boys in high school told me I was too competitive when I did not even know that we were in a competition, or what we were competing for.
Now I know that when people tell you you’re too much of anything, that’s actually a way you can identify your strengths, the things about you that set you apart from other people. And in my case, I was a budding young writer and thinker who had an intense hunger for the world.
And in some ways, I was rewarded for this but I also learned to hold myself in and play myself down because modesty is a feminine virtue. And I once told my therapist very proudly that I had never been the type of girl who would play dumb in order to make herself more appealing.
And I will never forget her response. She told me that to play yourself down, to undercut your own abilities is a form of playing dumb and we have a way of becoming the thing we think we’re only pretending to be. We have a way of rising or sinking to the level of expectation the culture holds for us.
We like to think we’re not influenced by the world around us but truth is we are hardwired to adapt to the herd. As a girl child in a small town, in the mid-1980s, I wasn’t really expected to like math. So, I stopped liking math. I also was not supposed to be too ambitious. I wanted to be the hero of my own unfolding epic and even if some voices in the culture told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, I was absorbing another kind of message.
Women are not the heroes of big stories, epic stories. We are instead the wives and girlfriends, the mistresses and mothers, the femme fatales and Manic Pixie dream girls in somebody else’s big story and that somebody else is usually a dude, even the smart by Steve bookish girl if she’s not careful gets cast as their Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter.
There’s a saying ‘you have to see it to be it’. So, if you look into the culture and you do not see how you are entitled to the starring role in your own big story, you might just wake up one morning and smile and say ‘that’s alright, you go ahead. I’ll stay back here and organize the snack committee’ because somebody has to.
But to define yourself as a supporting player, to live in someone’s shadow is a precarious position. Divorce happens, widowhood happens, kids grow up fast and men have this habit of dying before we do. So, the odds are good that any woman is going to spend a significant period of her life alone.
But ask twenty-something women about the possibility of being single at 30 or 40 or 50, chances are they will gasp in horror. But if we do not see single life as a real alternative, we remain just as controlled by marriage as any previous generation. And if you can’t say no to something, you can’t really say yes to it either.
I was married. I was married to a man who became extremely successful and as I watched him rise, I noticed two things. He worked very hard, much harder than your average bear and he said no a lot. He said no to people who wanted his time and attention and energy. He said no in a way that protected his resources so that he could channel them toward his own goal.
And I realized that behind every no is a deeper yes to whatever it is that you do want. No is like a bright line, that when used properly marks off where you end and others begin. And we learn this young. I have kids and when they want to assert their power and individuality, they say no.
But when you lose your deep yes, you also lose your bright no. How can you say no to protect what you want if you don’t even know what you want? And I started to wonder it may be the reason I had trouble saying no to people was because I did not think that I was worth a yes to protect and this could have cost me my life.
In my 30s, I was in a car accident. I managed to tottle an obscenely expensive automobile going maybe eight miles an hour. I made a right turn at the wrong time and I got hit by a car that knocked my car into another car. The real culprit was my exhaustion. I was meeting a friend when I should not have been driving at all, I should have said no. But there’s something else.
After that sickening crunch of impact, after that moment when I realized that damn, I had just been in an accident, my first thought was not ‘thank God, I’m alive’ and it wasn’t ‘thank God, nobody’s hurt’. It was ‘my husband is going to kill me’ because I wrecked the car. And sitting on the curb trembling, drinking bottled water that a police officer gave me, I realized this was more than an accident, this was my wake-up call.
How had I gotten to this point where I was more concerned about my husband’s disapproval and the fact that I could have killed myself or somebody else? And in the days that followed, I thought back to that childhood diary and I realized something.
The moment I threw it out was the moment I made a bad decision. I decided not to trust the voice that filled those pages, the unfiltered voice of my deep yes, my own high opinion of myself and I put that trust in these other voices, external voices that let me know and it doesn’t settle ways, that I needed to remember my place because modesty is a feminine virtue.
I learned to look outside myself for the kind of validation and personal authority that can only be found deep within. I am calling it the deep yes but some people call it self-worth.
In the novel of The Color Purple by Alice Walker, there’s a character who writes letters to a friend named God, which is also writing to the strength within herself. I’ve heard it referred to as your Inner GPS. Sometimes in my blog, I call it the voice of your soul. You might think of it as your higher self.
But it is a force that is constantly driving us toward wholeness. We ignore it or allow others to override it at our peril because to deny it is to deny your nature, your true nature, to alienate yourself from the love of self that enables you to receive love from others.
And the deep yes then innately creative act, the way to reconnect with it, to free that inner voice is through creative expression. There’s a saying ‘show me who you love and I will show you who you are’ but I also believe we are what we make. In my case, it was my writing and my blogging that led me back to a sense of self.
My writing reminds me who I am and who I want to be, and in the fall of 2010, I wrote a piece for Marie Claire magazine. I told a story, my story, in which I was no longer that Hermione to someone else’s Harry Potter and before the piece came out, I was freaking terrified. I called my editor, I emailed my editor at 3:00 in the morning asking her if I could please take it back. She said no.
But when the issue came out, I learned something else. When you move into your deep yes, you allow others to move into theirs because the emails and the responses in the comments I got were very telling and one of the things that they told me was that women want to play a bigger game. Women want permission to pursue dreams and goals and the greatness that is all our own.
And when I say permission, I mean a story that supports us that manifests in the kind of social and economic and political structures that make that kind of female greatness possible because you shouldn’t have to feel like you need to sacrifice some or all of your womanhood. You shouldn’t need to feel like you will get massacred for admitting out loud that you have some greatness in you. You just need the time and the space and the energy to bring it out and someone else can get the snacks.
Women want a grand, an inspiring call to adventure that points the way to a deeper life, even if it’s still unclear, in the year 2013, what that kind of badass womanly life is supposed to look like? But the call is there, it’s waiting.
We have to get very quiet on a day to day basis and listen to that voice within, we have to trust it enough to actually act on what it tells us, which is easier said than done, I know, but it can be done. It leads to events like this one.
The last thing I would like to leave you with is this: when we have only ourselves to find the way, make the way and lead the way, we need to trust the deep yes so that we can trust ourselves. We need to trust the deep yes so that we can trust each other.