More Than a Moment (aka: Overcoming our Shadow Selves)

 There is a bleakness that exists within the human spirit. It is something so terrible, that none of us like to acknowledge its existence. A cold, terrible nothingness that creeps inside us. The shadow side of our human nature.

The woman who badmouths people behind their backs says, “At least I’m not as bad as the one who mistreats other people outright.”

The man who mistreats other people outright says, “At least I’m not as bad as people who abuse pets.”

The woman who abuses pets says, “I’m not as bad as people who physically hurt other people.”

The man who beats his wife and children says, “At least I’m not as bad as a murderer.”

The man who murders one person says, “I’m not as bad as the man who murders multiple people.”

And we shrug our shoulders at our “lesser” badness, and feel better. If just for the moment.

We have only two real ways to keep the shadows from overtaking us. We give in in bits and pieces, accepting the part rather than the whole. Every time we make a choice to willingly harm another person, we are choosing to walk in the shadows. We choose to cheat, to skirt around the rule of law. We dangle temptation on a string. We aim our bitter self-hatred toward others, forcing our whipping boy to endure the fury and pain we feel for ourselves. We lash out at the weak in our cowardice, then laugh as they fall.

Because it makes us feel better. If just for the moment.

It trades our helpessness for power, if just for the moment. It hides the shadows, that terrible, creeping emptiness, in our darkness. But only for the moment.

But there is another way to keep it from overtaking us.

We fight.

We do not take the route of the cowardly, who give up and give in to their shadow self. Instead, we fill our lives with as much purpose and light as we can carry. We make the difficult choice to reach into the mire with both hands and help our fellow human beings. We share our bounty with those who have less. We seek out those who have become invisible, and we see them. We offer kindness and forgiveness, even to those who aim to do us wrong. We love.

And it does more than just make us feel better. It makes us better.

We fight the shadows with light, because light is the only weapon that can defeat them. It is not an easy route. We are all faced with moments of weakness, when it would be easier to give in. To slander. To do harm. To spread lies. To punish the weak simply because they are weaker to us. But to give in is to feed the shadows, until the emptiness grows and grows inside us.

I challenge you to examine your own spirit. What feeds you? What do you turn to to get you through the day? What lifts you, and breathes life into you? What gives you pause, and fills you with those moments when everything feels right, and you are in love with being alive? Are you fueled by your shadow self, seeking temporary ways to feel better? Or are you motivated by the light, seeking excellence, focused on becoming better?

 

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Good Hair? (Nature vs. Beauty Among Black Women)

“I hate my hair,” my 11 year-old daughter says, frowning at her reflection in the mirror. “I wish my hair were longer/straighter/lighter/less frizzy.” I am stunned whenever she complains. My daughter’s hair is a shiny, chestnut-brown mass of bouncy, shoulder-length curls. A little water and a squirt of styling mousse, and her hair is absolutely gorgeous. I am crazy about her hair. How in the world can she not like it? She has such good hair.

My daughter's hair

My daughter’s hair

“I hate my hair,” I have always said, frowning at my own reflection in the mirror. “I wish it were longer/less curly/thicker/prettier.”

My mother and sisters were always stunned when I said this. “But you have such pretty natural curls,” they told me. “You have good hair.”

Good hair. It is perhaps the most emotionally charged and difficult issue for many African Americans; especially girls and women. What is “Good Hair?” It means tresses that are long, straight, light, shiny, bouncy, or wavy. It means hair that you can wash and go without spending much time and energy styling it to look nice. It means hair that swings from side to side when you walk, hair that you can flip over your shoulder, hair that you can slide your fingers through. It means not short, not kinky, not nappy or frizzy or poofy. Good hair means not African hair.

“You need to get that boy’s haircut,” one of my family members told me recently when I allowed my youngest son to let his thick, curly hair grow out for several months.“I am trying to give him the freedom to wear his hair how he likes it,” I said. “He wants big, poofy curls.”“He looks ridiculous,” said another relative. “It looks low-class when he wears his hair like that.” (Yesterday, I finally caved in and took my son to the barber shop. He was not a happy camper).

“You need to get that boy’s haircut,” one of my family members told me recently when I allowed my youngest son to let his thick, curly hair grow out for several months.
“I am trying to give him the freedom to wear his hair how he likes it,” I said. “He wants big, poofy curls.”
“He looks ridiculous,” said another relative. “It looks low-class when he wears his hair like that.” (Yesterday, I finally caved in and took my son to the barber shop. He was not a happy camper).

From an outsider’s perspective, it may be difficult to fully understand the depth of the struggles Black people have with hair. The pressure to conform to a particular standard of beauty has existed within the Black community since the days of slavery. There are external pressures to conform in order to obtain employment, to find a mate, or to fit in socially. There are internal pressures to conform in order to please or represent one’s family in an acceptable manner.

Many Black women spend hundreds of dollars each year in order to obtain what they consider to be good hair, although it often involves harsh chemical relaxers or costly hair weaves. Many feel that it is worth it, in order to have hair that is socially accepted, easy to manage, and makes them feel beautiful.

I have never turned to chemical straighteners to style my hair (unless you count one unfortunate Jheri Curl in the fall of 1988, which was a complete waste of money, since my own natural curls already resemble that once-popular hairstyle). However, at the age of 37, I still do not know how to style my own hair well. Since I prefer to be natural, I usually switch back and forth between wearing it curly and straightening it with a flat iron. Black women say that I have “Good hair.” But compared to other Black women, who usually choose the more expensive, non-natural methods, my hair usually looks messy, thin, and boring. Last summer, I nearly did not attend my 20-yr. high school reunion, because I could not figure out what to do with my hair and was in desperate tears before the mirror. When I finally gave up, shoved my so-called good hair into a messy ponytail, and attended the event, all of the other black women had intricate, fancy, beautiful hairstyles which I could never hope to do with my natural hair.

Good hair. Is it good because of the texture, the length, the color? Is it good because of how closely it resembles the current beauty trends of the mainstream culture? Is it good because it helps us to get the right job, or the right mate, or the right friends? Is it good because our families or communities tell us that it is good? Is it bad for the same reasons? How do we keep our children from internalizing the same sense of self-hatred for their natural beauty? How do I teach my own daughter to love her beautiful hair when I myself carry such negative feelings toward my own hair? It is such a tangled issue (pardon the pun), with such a web of deep emotions for many women of African heritage.

I leave you with this video clip from an episode of the Tyra Banks Show, in which she interviews mothers and their young daughters about their hair and issues they face. The responses from the little girls made me cry. The harmful self-images and which are so deeply set by the time we are adults begin so early in our lives. Will there ever come a day when the beauty of Black women will be as accepted and embraced as the beauty of women from other parts of the globe? For the sake of my daughter, and many other little girls who worry that their hair is not “good,” I certainly hope so.

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After years of thinking my natural curls were “bad,” I am trying to embrace them by going curly at least a few days each month. I no longer think they look terrible, but I would like it a lot better if they were much longer. I still hate having short hair. 😦

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