be what you are
of all the gods and spirits in our world, the most wise is Mother Heron. She has always cared especially for the dreamers and hopefuls. Be they young or old, honored or ostracized, from this land or that, Mother Heron guides every dreamer to a place where they not just survive, but thrive.
A young girl stood on her toes, chin raised and eyes shining, as she watched the court dancers step through their routine. She watched them with wonder and excitement.
The great Mother Heron felt the longing of the girl and appeared before her. “My daughter, what are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m dreaming of the day when I will be a court dancer, Mother Heron,” the girl replied.
A warm and gentle laugh rumbled in the throat of Mother Heron. “Your dreaming is beautiful. And so is your dancing heart. Don’t be so eager to trade your heart for such a worthless title.”
“But can’t I have both the heart of a dancer and the title?” she asked, her nose crinkling.
Mother Heron watched the court dancers for a moment, considering the girl’s question. Finally she said, “You can have only one. And it seems you’ve already chosen. And so you won’t dance for the king, or for his guests, or for anyone. You will dance for yourself.”
Several kingdoms over, a young boy sat polishing a soldier’s worn armor. He smiled as he rubbed each stain and scratch. His hopes and dreams danced in his downcast eyes.
Mother Heron, caring for all who hope and smile and dream, appeared to him. “What are you doing, little one?” she asked.
“Why, I’m training to be a warrior!” the boy replied.
Mother Heron tilted her feathered head and looked deep into the eyes of the boy. “You aren’t meant to be among the king’s ranks. The king’s warriors merely have the title of warrior, but you, my child, have the heart of one.”
“What should I do?” the boy asked, his brows drawing together.
“Forget about bearing this title. Take up and polish your own armor – your courage and compassion. And always be ready to confront fear like a true warrior. You will find your home among unlikely friends and in an unexpected place.”
“And my title? What will it be?” the boy asked eagerly. “What will I do? What will I be?”
“Your name is your title. Carry it with pride.”
Along the coast on the edge of a distant kingdom, a young father stood ready on the docks and tied down a ship as it came into port. The voice of this father’s father could be heard above the lapping sea, the screeching gulls, and the grunts of working men, calling out orders. The young father did as he was told and performed all of his duties well.
Mother Heron watched him just as she had watched his father before him. And she approached him now just the same. “What are you doing, my child?”
The young father looked up at her, sweat dripping from his brow. “I’m preparing this ship for another venture out to sea, great mother. Just as my grandfather did, and his father before him, and just as my son will do after me. I come from a line of great seafarers. Wonderful, decorated sailors of our dear king. You must know.”
“I do know,” Mother Heron replied. “I also know your heart and your destiny. And I hope that you will come to embrace both of them.”
A moment of silence passed, a refreshing and surprising moment of silence, and then the young father said, “What should I do?”
“Leave this title behind – and the expectations that come with it. Let it all gather dust. You, my dear, have the heart of a seafarer which is much more valuable than the title and history and expectations. What makes a true seafarer isn’t his ability to sail through crashing seas or raging storms at all, but the courage and cleverness he exhibits while traversing the seas and storms of life.
“So abandon this boat, this history of seafaring, this sense of duty, and take up your courage and cleverness. Don’t look to others for guidance. Look inward. Listen only to your own convictions. Discover your truest self buried deep under all the expectations that have been thrust upon you by others. And then choose to live only for yourself. That is how you will find your way. That is how you will find happiness.”
In a village that lay deep in the valley, an older woman held her head in her hands and cried. She cried and cried, her spirit aching from disappointment and shame. Mother Heron heard her sobs and appeared to her.
“Why are you crying, dear one?” Mother Heron asked.
The woman looked up and stifled a sniffle. “M-mother Heron, I have been studying and and preparing to be an advisor to the king my whole life. It’s my destiny. For you see, I have the heart of a philosopher. And so it must be my destiny! But the king will not give me even five minutes to present myself and my gifts. So all of this studying has been for nothing. My gifts are a waste. My life is a waste.”
Mother Heron spread her wings, nudged close to the woman, and embraced her. After some time, the great mother shook her head and said, “You’re very insightful to know your heart so well. But you’re mistaken about your destiny.
“On the contrary, your gifts are yours alone. They were given to you to enjoy for yourself. You owe nothing to no one, and you’re not obliged to share anything. Sharing should only happen out of a need to satisfy yourself, when your passion is so strong that it naturally bubbles over into others’ lives.
“From the day when you first spoke your mind, when you first grappled with the questions of purpose and existence, you gave your life to philosophy. You are a philosopher. Whether you stand beside the king and lend him your wisdom or not, you are a philosopher. So forget about what you ought to be. Be what you are.”
Mother Heron appears to all who will look up at her. And to all, she says the same: “Forget about worthless titles. Don’t do what you ‘ought’. Just be what you are.”
This story was written for my younger self, the frustrated and scared 17-year-old who simultaneously hated school and dreamed of being a successful academic.
How the world works and how the world ought to work are two very different things. Sometimes God or the Universe or life may seem unfair. It may seem backward or just inefficient. People who love dancing should dance, writers should write, dreamers should dream, builders – build. The key word here is “should”, and things don’t always happen as they should.
But I’ve learned that you can dedicate your life to, say, dancing without being a professional dancer or even a dance teacher. Just be a dancer. Be a dancer even when you’re not dancing.
Half of being a dancer is the mindset and the other half is about being authentic and accepting yourself as you are. The actual dancing, as mystical or philosophical (or nonsensical!) as it may sound, isn’t important at all.
I’ve learned that the “pinnacle profession” of where your talent or passion or heart lies isn’t necessarily what you should pursue. Just because you’re a really talented writer or really enjoy writing doesn’t mean you have to write novels for a living. Having other interests or goals or commitments doesn’t make you a sell out, and novels aren’t “the highest form of writing” no matter what other people think. Not to mention that often times, that pinnacle profession isn’t actually perfect or ideal at all.
Despite having “the heart of a researcher and student” myself, I would never thrive in academia because my style and philosophy of learning is wholly incompatible with academia’s environment. I’m not broken, and academia isn’t either. My talents and insights will be valuable in ways I can’t yet see and in places I’m not expecting. And I’d argue the same goes for everyone. Even for you.
So forget about what you “should” be doing and do what you want. Drop the labels. Quit thinking and planning out your life. Do what makes you come alive now.
Thanks for reading!
If you found any of the ideas presented particularly offensive or confusing, please let me know! I’m in the process of writing some companion articles to bring more clarity to the ideas I’m asserting, and would love to address any counterpoints you have.