I am fascinated by koans. For this post, I looked up the actual definition. From Dictionary.com: A koan is a puzzling, often paradoxical statement or story, used in Zen Buddhism as an aid to meditation and a means of gaining spiritual awakening.

Recently, not for the first time, this koan caught my attention: What did your face look like before you were born?

Your”original face,” I think, is the face you had before you began making assumptions about yourself, labeling yourself: I’m shy; I’m fat; I have no self-control; I’m not creative; I’m not cool; I’m not good under pressure.

Before you “knew” so much about yourself… who were you?

It was when I first heard that koan that I began to wonder if “shy” wasn’t simply a label I’d given myself. I really hated being shy. I complained all the time about how it got in my way, how it limited me and stressed me out, but I also totally accepted it. I was the shy girl. Everyone knew it. Even my creative writing professors in college rarely made me read my work aloud. (It was as painful for them to watch me try as it was for me to attempt it.)

But the “original face” koan got me thinking (as all good koans do), and I decided there must have been a time before I was a shy. And then, after that, another time when I accepted shyness as part of my identity. And once you do that, even if you hate the characteristic you’ve accepted, it’s hard to let it go. Right or wrong, it is how you define yourself, and it’s easier to be this thing you hate, than to risk becoming something new.

It sounds crazy – deciding not to be shy, but that’s what I did. Partly as an experiment, and partly because I was tired of being quiet, of standing outside looking in. It has not been easy, or smooth. Sometimes I am an unbelievable dork, and before you jump in to reassure me, please know that I don’t say that lightly. I am cold-sweat-tongue-tied uncomfortable sometimes, and it shows. I’m sure there are times when people I meet simply don’t know what to make of me. But other times, I’m fine. Maybe even charming. At least, I’m not embarrassing, and frankly that still amazes me.

I can’t picture my face before I was born. I’m not entirely sure which things about myself I can change and which things I need to learn to live with. I’m figuring it out as I go. It’s a little scary, but also empowering to think I have so much control over who I am. (Hell, maybe I’m good at math. Who knows?)

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