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LAURA WHITMAN: Self-expression is life, not luxury

- Belle DeMont
- Belle DeMont

"There are tents, I am certain, that I have not discovered in my many visits to the circus. Though I have seen a great deal of sights, traveled a number of the available paths, there are always corners that remain unexplored, doors that remain unopened.”

— The Night Circus

It’s not a fluffy luxury, and it’s not limited to artistic or creative pursuits. Rather, self expression is about the exploration and experience of being alive — right now, right here, with your specific body, brain and life. It’s about the ability and freedom to say, do and be who are you, as you are. It’s about being able to tap into the unique, true and sometimes most basic parts of yourself, and having that be seen and heard by others. And for some, self expression is about foundational rights that many of us take for granted.

For example, people living in larger bodies aren’t accepted and appreciated in the same way that people living in thinner bodies are. People living in poverty or isolation don’t have the same options to express themselves as people with more resources and relationships do. And countless people cannot proudly, safely and fully express their identity, gender, sexuality, culture and country of origin.

That’s exactly why self expression is a topic worthy of discussion and reflection; in the pages of Now Atlantic and beyond. Because for people with freedom and opportunity to express, the possibilities are infinite. Like the experience of the circus described in the opening quote, there is always more to discover on the quest of getting to know and express yourself. And for people whose expression is constrained or oppressed, fighting for more opportunity, respect, and safety is critical.

Of course, there is no one way to express yourself and no clear destination we can all pursue that, upon arrival, would declare the journey to be successfully complete! Even the most achievement-oriented person will never cross “express yo’self" of their to do list.

It’s a practice or experiment that can last a lifetime. And the myriad of options before us include the work we do, the people we spend time with, the hobbies and activities we prioritize, the way we communicate, the things we make, the way we dress and decorate, the way we move and take care of our bodies, the way we gather, rest, celebrate, adventure. Truly, the list could go on.

The articles published in Now this month dive into some of these slices of self expression — including how we communicate, imbibe, raise families, travel, start businesses, find community, heal from trauma, make art, and advocate for acceptance. Perhaps reading one of them is an opportunity to reflect on the difference between what it means and feels like to be — and not to be — expressed.

Do your words, ideas, talents, curiosities, and nuances show up somewhere, somehow that someone else can see or hear them? That YOU can see or hear them? What about for other people in your life or community? While no one can take on the job of expression for another, we can extend invitations, remove barriers and offer encouragement. Is this part of what it means to be a good friend, partner, co-worker or citizen?

That’s up to each of us to decide, I suppose.

My own lived experience is such that my own fear — and biologically-wired need for belonging and connection — has been the only real barrier to my self expression. I’ve lived with the privilege of not having marginalization, oppression, discrimination, the risk of violence, or other external threats standing in my way.

And so, the way I connect to the importance of self expression is through my daily experience and noticing and comparing the differences between them, which is something we can all do.

I know how it feels to speak up and to bite my tongue. To be spoken to and acknowledged, and to be ignored. To feel a sense of community and to feel like an outsider. To make things with my hands and to be idle for long stretches of time. It’s like the difference between carrying seeds around in my pocket where no one can see or do anything with them (including me) and the satisfaction of tending to a garden of beautiful flowers. If given the choice, would you rather be a firefly trapped in a bottle or the moon that illuminates the whole meadow?

Closing takeaway

Imagine going to an art gallery only to find paint in tubes and cans, pastels and pencils in boxes, and blank canvases hanging on the wall. Everyone in the room -- and there are several of you -- is given the same, equal opportunity: you can either open and use the materials or sit there and leave everything in the packaging. Would you say yes to using the materials? Would you get out of the way so others could do the same? Better yet, would you cheer them on or admire their unique approach? If you were actually in an art gallery and presented with this scenario, your answer to at least one of those questions is probably yes. Because in this context, keeping all of the colours trapped in their containers is kind of silly, isn’t it?

Now imagine that art gallery is your life. What’s your answer now?

About Laura Whitman: Insatiable appetite for plain language, curious questions, growth experiments, tiny joys, and creativity that gets made.

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