I had five minutes to myself Sunday morning. The dog wasn’t awake yet and my two teenagers were still snoring. I sat down to read the newspaper. It was pure pleasure. I feel like the only person on the planet who still reads a physical newspaper. The digital versions always leave me wondering if I’ve read all the day’s news. I spread the paper out flat, just the way I remember my dad reading it when I was a preschooler. He read the paper on the living room floor amidst all our toys and games. This morning I never got past the headline. It reminded me of one of the most important assets we each possess, our voices.
The story that caught my eye was Nakesha’s Demons, a story about a Williams College graduate who became homeless and died on the streets of New York in 2016. Nakesha Williams was a few years younger than me. She struggled with mental illness throughout her adult life, a diagnosis that emerged after she graduated from college. I was drawn to this story because mental illness, or more accurately how society deals with mental illness, is a topic of great interest to me.
Journalist Benjamin Weiser interviewed a peer of Nakesha’s who was surprised about the details of Nakesha’s life and the circumstances of her death. She said, “You never know anybody’s story.”
I wanted to scream. While her statement was socially accurate, it missed a major opportunity that each of us faces, the ability to use our voices.
Voice is a choice. We get to determine how we use it; if we use it; and how much we cultivate it.
I’ve been in transition for a few years. I count it among my life’s greatest achievements. Through the process, my voice has emerged stronger and clearer than ever before in my life. It announces to the world that what I’ve learned in this process completes me like few other things have.
Here are some observations that I’ve made about our voices along the way:
- Voice is our personal bridge. It connects who we are with the world;
- Our stories – our own personal narratives – are testing grounds for our voices;
- Voice gives shape to those things that hold value and meaning to us. Some people talk about voice as a way of legitimizing those very things that hold value and meaning to them;
- Voice isn’t binary. It isn’t on or off. Instead, voice gains strength through use;
- Voice is vulnerable and needs our attention. Some circumstances, like Nakesha’s life-altering diagnosis, shroud voice. Other influences, like an over-bearing boss or an abusive relationship or wavering confidence, can dangle voice out of reach. These circumstances don’t render voice inaccessible, they simply remind us that voice requires our active commitment.
- Voice is always at risk – especially when we feel like we aren’t enough or accepted or valued or necessary – because it can too easily be silenced.
What is your voice saying?
I remember a very strong woman who came up to talk with me after a speech. She was in tears. She said, “I can hear my voice. It is screaming at me!” Her voice was telling her to move in a very different direction, a direction she had deferred for a very long time.
Is there something that your voice is telling you?
There are real things that can get in the way of exercising our voices, like Nakesha’s life-altering diagnosis. Blessedly most of us will never have to walk the difficult path that she did. We will, however, all have to cultivate our voices.
Today I wish for you the courage to explore who you are through the active engagement of your own voice. May you delight in its volume and in its vitality.
One thing I am sure of, the world desperately needs every one of our voices at the table.
Thank you for reading. Take a moment to comment below or tell me what’s on your mind: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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