When I was a kid, I loved to read a good book more than once. Stories are complicated and layered and beautiful, and, to my teenage self's chagrin, I have learned since writing my own books that yes, every single detail was considered thoughtfully and planted by the author. None of this "the curtains are just blue because they're blue!" rubbish. The curtains are blue to symbolise the desolation of having to study D.H. Lawrence in Year 12, just like the bastard intended.
One of my favourite books to read and reread was Enid Blyton's "The Naughtiest Girl in the School." It's a children's book that I've definitely read again sometime between the ages of 16 and 21. In fact, now that I'm thinking of it, I'll probably pick it up again soon, just for nostalgia's sake.
At the risk of posting spoilers of a book written in 1940, the story follows a bratty little girl called Elizabeth Allen. Her hobbies include playing cruel pranks on her governesses until they have a breakdown and quit, stressing her parents out because there's no "help" to palm her onto, and most likely torturing small animals, though that involves a degree of reading between the lines and interpretative embellishment on my behalf.
Elizabeth is carted off to a private school which, despite her attempts to loathe every aspect, is basically the utopia that Communism wishes it could be. Kids share their allowance into a group pool not just willingly, but happily, the student body is run by a government system comprised of students rather than teachers and, as a glaring reminder that this book is, indeed, complete and utter fiction, not one child seems to hoard chocolate in their bedroom drawers so they don't have to share.
Because Elizabeth is a little sourpuss, she makes it her mission to get expelled despite this particular boarding school being as lavish as one of the mansions in a rap music videos. Kids have weird priorities. She gets up to a series of hijinks to this end but, despite her best efforts, comes to love Big Brother... I mean, the school. Though she proclaimed loudly and regularly that she intended to be expelled throughout her journey, Elizabeth learns through the wisdom of her fellow students that it is better to change your mind and admit that you are wrong, than to obstinately stick to something you no longer believe.
Yes, there is a life lesson in there. Thanks for sneaking that one in, Enid. Next thing you know, you're going to tell me the Saucepan Man from the Magic Faraway Tree is a metaphor for the need to be gentle with developmentally-delayed folk. Oh. Wait.
I latched onto the moral of the story in that wide-eyed way that only children can. To this day, I strongly believe that it takes a big ole serve of maturity to be malleable about your personal beliefs, and I try to live this philosophy as best I can.
Here's the thing about having an openminded stance on literally everything: it's bloody exhausting. I won't allow myself to become passionate about my opinions on an issue until I've weighed them against the other side and found them to be the victor. This means that I let self-proclaimed devil's advocates chew my ear off on a litany of subjects before I realise I've just invested an hours of my life listening to somebody spout their thoughts on topics that I know more about than they do.
That's not arrogance speaking, either... I mean, let's just make it clear right off the bat that there is literally no amount of political pressure going on in the world right now that would see Australia end up at war with the U.S.A. There just isn't. That's not my opinion because I did a damn degree in International Politics and Counter-Terrorism. That's my opinion because it's not bloody ridiculous. But hey, silver linings: at least I know my philosophy can be subjected to hardcore debate and not be found wanting.
Sometimes this egalitarian openmindedness has got me into a bind, especially if somebody has done me wrong. Many a time have I tried to place myself in the shoes of some spiteful jerk who's been rude to me, or taken advantage of my generosity, or said something nasty to put me down in a seemingly benign conversation. I used to drive myself half mad trying to work out what I had done wrong, how in the mind of someone who has wronged me, they felt I deserved to be hurt or humiliated.
That was until recently, when an exceptionally wise person on my Facebook (you might know him as the face of the Middleditch meme) posted a status. His words are as follows:
"When you understand and accept that no one is obligated to do anything for you, and that you can't make them feel obligated with anything you do, you start feeling so much better about being with people, and not being annoyed or upset when things don't go the way you thought they should have."
For some reason, I read those words at the exact right moment and a lightbulb went off in my head. I realised, far later than I should have, that I can be openminded about other peoples' opinions without reorienting my entire life around their thoughts. Nobody had the right to trample my perspective. It's okay to back myself.
This revelation (and no, I am not afraid to call it that) came just days after my twenty-third birthday, which was shared with my closest friends and my generous family. Feeling surrounded by love undoubtedly helped this idea to germinate. Since then, "no obligation" has spouted legs and taken off running. I am still the person I was: measured in my opinions, cynical until I'm certain, and utterly immune to marketing ploys because cheap empathy-tugs and faux-environmentalism don't tug my heartstrings before my brain can evaluate the agenda. I am open to negotiation of thought, but not when it comes to judging myself.
Like most people who aren't sociopaths, I want to be the most generous, empathic, thoughtful person I can be. But I am not obligated to be guilt-tripped, or pushed past my comfort level, or to bend over backwards as a means of keeping the peace. I have accepted that other people do not know more about me than I do about myself, so there is no benefit in giving this kind of denigration power.
Since adopting this "no obligation" stance, I have felt liberated. I can now assert myself where I would otherwise have let myself be stepped on. I have been able to let go of any bitterness towards people who have stolen from me, lied to me, or cheated on me. I have been able to gingerly laugh at derision and passive-aggression, instead of letting it make me so sick with stress that I vomit.
I did not realise for many years that this perpetual reassessment of self, which I interpreted as a hallmark of maturity, was actually doing me harm. Whilst contradiction helps a person sculpt a wider perspective in the context of external issues (like politics, religion, and whether breakfast is a bullshit meal), I allowed it to leach into my sense of self. In this headspace, I gave power to others - some of whom did not have my best interests at heart - to tell me who I was, rather than me telling them.
I am twenty-three years old, and under no obligation to let someone else feel stronger and wiser by virtue of standing on me.
I am twenty-three years old, and I am changing my mind.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.