We have beliefs about ourselves to which we hold on tightly. We build a sense of identity around them as if they are truths set in stone. We tell ourselves stories that support our identity and behave in ways that support what we believe to be true, even if that truth is a dark one.
After high school I left home, embarking on a new journey. Many of my friends did the same, scattering to new places all over the country. The path my friend P took however could not have been more opposite from mine. While freedom and possibilities stretched out before me as I started college, P faced five years of imprisonment in the state penitentiary.
P grew up without much parental guidance. His father was often absent from his life. His mother struggled to make ends meet and to care for P’s much younger sisters. P helped his family out by stealing and selling drugs. He dropped out of school at an early age, opting for a street education instead. His lawless activities gradually escalated in nature, as did his mentality. It shaped who he was, who he believed himself to be.
P was a good and loyal friend, and he had a big heart. While he was in prison, we corresponded through written letters. He always decorated the envelopes with intricate drawings, often of flowers intertwined together by vines of sharp leaves and thorns. I got one every couple of weeks and wrote him back almost immediately. His stories about life on the inside were minimal, but the darkness and hardness of the place emanated from all of the things he didn’t say.
More importantly though, were our philosophical discussions about human nature and being positive and optimistic. P’s life in prison was exposing him to time and experiences that made him seriously question who he was and who he wanted to become. In every letter I wrote, I poured out an immense bounty of positive messages, energy, and encouragement. I wanted desperately for him to change for the better, to emerge from prison with the intention and the willpower to turn his life in a positive direction, and I knew he wanted that, too.
His letters indicated that he was hearing me, taking our conversations to heart. But then he sent me a letter that woke me to the truth. P got a tattoo while in prison. It was of a demon, and it covered his entire chest. When P looked in the mirror every day, he saw his own face, and then he saw the face of the demon, reinforcing what he believed to be true about himself – that he was a bad person.
Sometimes we believe something to be true about ourselves for so long that it feels too hard to test that certainty and see if our belief is still true. It’s easier to simply go on believing and existing in the reality we have constructed for ourselves in our own minds. I could not change P with a handful of letters. I could not unravel the story he had been telling himself for most of his life. Only he could change that story.
The news of P’s tattoo broke my heart. I felt like I had lost him. I continued my letters of positivity and encouragement, however. Once he was released from prison, he never went back. I’m glad for that, but his internal struggle didn’t end there. After he was out, we talked regularly about his questionable ethics and morality evident by the choices he had made and was still making. Eventually it became too much for me, and as I pushed to keep that darkness out of my life, our friendship faded away.
What are the things about yourself that you “know” to be true? Ask yourself why you believe these things and question their validity. We should always be questioning ourselves and the truths we hold so close. After all, we are the ones that constructed them.
We decide what defines us and what we see when we look in the mirror every day. Some of us see a demon, like P did, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We decide our truths, the things that define who we are, and we can decide to change them. We can change the stories we tell ourselves and be better.