This is the original copy of Jeanelle’s keynote speech given at the Caribbean Sistren Summit on Sunday 25th August 2019 at the Sound Forge (St. James, Trinidad).
“Walk boldly into the unknown.”
There was a time when those words were merely cliché, motivational gab to me and, ten times to one, it was likely that for you when I said it. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve heard it all before. “Be fearless; be brave; be strong; be powerful; there is no time better than the present; you have to go for what you want; everything you need is already inside.” All of it. It is even possible that you’ve been to many women empowerment seminars, hoping to hear something that you don’t already know… something that will shake you to your core and finally push you to becoming the human you’ve always known you can be… but you leave feeling nothing more than, maybe, the general swell in motivation that disappears after a few days. I propose that there is a much bigger issue we’re all facing, one that was first researched and identified over a century ago.
It’s the term psychologists use to describe the phenomenon where the repetition of words or phrases eventually leads to a sense that they have lost their meaning. For a playful demonstration, you can test this concept by repeating a word, say “mother,” up to three times a second for fifteen seconds. You will observe that the word seems to morph into gibberish in your mouth. However, more seriously, this effect is quite present but not necessarily obvious in our daily lives.
Have you ever observed that when you’re around a particular scent, your nose seems to lose its ability to smell it, probably to the displeasure of your occasional house guests? In essence, continued exposure to a stimulus reduces its effectiveness. Similarly, we are less affected by words we hear or see often, as repetition causes them to lose intensity over time. But isn’t that a scary concept? If we aren’t conscious of this effect, is it possible, for example, for a word like “love” to lose its meaning the more we say or hear it? Do we begin to take it for granted? What about hate? What about words wielded in abuse or disempowerment?
When we allow words to lose meaning, any form of associated expression is taking up arms against a greater, subtler, hidden monster: desensitization. Nonchalance. The dispassionate humans. The indifferent.
It is likely that we are all unconsciously one of these humans stuck in that monstrous matrix. So, before I say anything else, I want to make you aware that you have a choice. You can keep taking the blue pill and remain ignorant of how numb we’ve all become, or you can take the red pill and reset your ears, eyes, and hearts. How? By listening openly and intently, even when we don’t like or care for what’s being said… By fighting to see clearly and banishing blind-spots of bias… By feeling unrestrainedly every bit of not just the next two days, but of our lives, even if it rips us apart… even if we don’t feel a thing. Because the truth is, we’re starting at a disadvantage unless we wake up and fight our programming.
But, that’s just one layer of the many tiers of programming, and they will likely take a lifetime of dedicated work to undo. It took me a minute to recognize and begin to fight mine. It is so easy to believe you’re doing meaningful things with your life based on external valuations of meaning. We tend to have these checklists for what a successful life looks like, influenced by everything from upbringing to societal conditioning, and let me tell you: I am a BOSS at checklists. I could go from scatter-brained and overwhelmed to seamlessly organized and on-top-of-this-beep in two-point-four-four seconds. I loved those mornings when I got up with my schedule, secured the day’s reins in my hands, then drove myself to the finish line that I had painted into the night. Exercise? Check. Read for personal growth? Check. Drink 3L of water? Check. Hit my deadlines for work? Check. For years, I could make any day feel perfectly productive… and, to the very depths of my core, still not feel a thing. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Success: [defined by] the rapid conversion of overwhelming chaos into underwhelming order.
It wasn’t always like that. I remember my teenage days on my To-Die-For DELL computer typing a particular document with a couple of close girlfriends and saving it on a top-secret diskette. This document detailed the monumental dreams we had for our lives, and I treated it like a confidential treasure trove of power that only the likes of shows like La Femme Nikita could ever understand. In keeping with that theme, my first email address started with the name “nikita” because, I mean, this was serious business. I can still feel what that felt like… unbridled belief, limitless joy in anticipation of a future that was somehow guaranteed in my heart of hearts…
And I remember when it all changed.
MIT was my dream university, and I had every step thereafter laid out clearly—at least up until my Ph.D. My godmother brought back a keyring from there when I was, maybe, fourteen years old, and I kept it with my keys for many years. It was more meaningful to me than most of my other possessions. But there was no way my folks could afford to send me there at the time. In fact, a few months before the Advanced Level exams, my Dad lay it down straight. To paraphrase, he said, “here are your options: get a scholarship, or ‘salt’… the end.” For the nerdy teenager I was, however, this was in no way discouraging. Not only did I have that unbridled belief, but I also had a stellar track record—all ones/A’s for the Ordinary Level exams meant that nabbing that Open Schol a couple of years later was well within my potential. And I did get a full scholarship … but not an international one. Not one that would ever carry me to my dream.
You’re probably thinking “champagne problems,” right?
Ever experienced it? You aimed at or longed for something, but ended up with less. Then, someone comes around and makes you feel guilty for complaining. Let’s take a quick TBT to childhood and remember when we would complain “I don’t feel for thisssssssss” — usually at the sight of green vegetables—and your mother or grandmother would say “CHILE! Eat yuh food eh! It have chirren starving in Africa!” Yeah… we’ve all been having those pesky “champagne problems” since birth! But the reality is, whenever we settle for less than what we aimed for, what we are actually doing is nurturing mediocrity within ourselves. I am not saying that we should be perfectionists, nor am I saying that I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I just think we underestimate the impact that life’s perceived rejection has on us—especially when we patch the wound through justifications like “champagne problems.”
Now, I do remember agreeing with my parents that God’s will had been done and, truth be told, I did feel grateful for my results. We celebrated, I beamed with pride, the full nine yards. The truth is, though, I lost something that day. Something important… essential to all meaning… my faith’s first significant crack within which I hid that secret diskette of magnanimous visions that were now jaded by reality.
We each have that moment at some point in our formative years. You know, the sell-out moment. It’s the awareness that it isn’t safe to run wildly or stick your hand in the fire. Self-preservation and survival take precedence, and no desire is left unchecked. So instead, we create checklists… checking for realism, measuring current capabilities against goals… converting overwhelming chaos into underwhelming order. It’s a fool-proof plan if you think about it, except for the glaring fact that we then become fools for lull. Regardless, within those safe boundaries, I pushed myself to the very best of my ability. From my first degree in engineering to my masters in project management, alongside a vast range of work experience in varied fields, my life was peppered with “success.”
Did you know that you can have all the qualifications in this world and still be tragically underqualified for what it takes to live a meaningful life? I suspected it for years, but it was not until early 2016 that I paradoxically became triggered by how not-triggered I felt with everything in my life. It bothered me, badly, that I was still riding the waves of accomplishment from my twenties into my thirties. It irked me that I had nothing new or remarkable to show for it all—nothing worthy of the unrestrained sixteen-year-old me who would spit on what adult-me viewed as a pretty great life. Sixteen-year-old me knew that sacrifice isn’t giving large amounts of what you abundantly have… it’s giving all of the little you do have. What I had little left in was that unbridled belief, but rumor had it that I only needed faith as small as a mustard seed…
If I were playing a game of never-have-I-ever a few years ago, I wouldn’t have batted an eye if the statement given was “never have I ever thought I’d become a fantasy author.” Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been in love with fantasy and sci-fi since I was a child. It makes sense because I grew up believing that only cowards buy into the concept of limitation and impossibility. Fantasy had a way of infusing my imagination with wildness, and my spirit found sustenance while lost in worlds of ink or light. But in June 2016, I had a realization about the period of my life that had just gone past… one that brought me to a deeper understanding that darkness and light weren’t as black and white as I had believed. With that, came the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who would change the course of my life forever. Her name was Yara.
She quickly became my muse for three existential questions I had begun to ask so that I could reset my programming.
How do you find yourself?
How do you know yourself?
And how do you be yourself?
Because finding back the person I had lost was one thing, but it didn’t mean I would know who that person now was in the context of an older-me… and getting to know who that person was didn’t guarantee that I would be capable of being her. The more I delved into Yara’s story, the more inclined I felt to write it at a Young Adult level so that I could enable even a twelve-year-old with the lessons I was learning throughout the process. I worked on her synopsis for a year and a half, which ended up being a novella by the time I completed it, all the while teaching myself about writing fiction and publishing.
But something happened as I explored Yara’s world and began bringing pieces of it back into this one. I compare it, oddly enough, to when you get the flu and end up with a very stuffy nose, and you’re there with your head bent over a steaming pot of water and salts, contemplating how much you’ve taken the ability to breathe for granted… and there is this moment when your nostrils clear, and you take in those first unrestricted breaths of air for the first time in a week, and you’re melting with gratitude because it’s flowing into your lungs with such refreshing freedom… *takes deep breath*
It was exactly like that, except that what flowed into me was even more magical. I began to feel, to really feel, again. It started slowly, these hints of mysterious lights sparkling through the dense numbness of my pretty great life. Then, in a tidal wave of limitless desire, I was suddenly overpowered by an absolute need to stop playing with just a synopsis and seriously begin writing book one. I started on March 30th, 2018. I didn’t feel ready, and I wasn’t. I was still fumbling through the art of writing fiction and stumbling across every error a first-time writer could make. I could feel my programming trying to take back the reins and slap “sense” into me. “What are you doing? You’re just going to make a fool out of yourself! You have no experience, and you aren’t even taking the traditional, safe approach to this!” So, what did I do? I hijacked my programming with a public announcement that the first book of the YaraStar Trilogy, called The Unmarked Girl, would be out by the end of June 2018. I made that announcement on June 1st and — this is the first time I am sharing this — I had not even completed the first draft of the book yet. In fact, I finished it almost a few weeks later, on June 17th at 4:26 am.
See, I had tasted something … a wildfire that I thought I had lost … and with it, came the inability to continue to do anything that did not make me feel like I was stretching far beyond my current capabilities and self-imposed limitations … stretching toward the dreams that were worthy of being in that top-secret diskette. I gave every bit of that mustard seed, and as imperfect as my book one was when it was finally released, Divinity moved when I stepped forward. What I actually won with the CODE Burt Award this year, was my mustard seed becoming a plant.
I’m here today to ask my fellow red-pill-poppers this question:
If you dispel the numbness of a good-enough life, what would you really do with yours?
You know, that dream you’ve secretly longed for that will require all of your faith, even if you only have a tiny amount? What triggers you to your very core? We have a tendency to view our triggers as manifestations of, say, jealousy or a lack of self-control, but in reality, they are very accurate pointers to our deeper desires. Here’s a classic example: have you ever felt negatively toward someone celebrating their major life steps on the gram? “Oh, he just likes to show off! She’s probably exaggerating! Instagram is a liar anyway!” You’re likely triggered because your greatest self wants you to show up and grind, but you beeeeen playing. Get in touch with your trigger bait, both the positive and the negative, and you will find the breadcrumbs that are leading you out of satiation and into a life you can feel again.
As I bring our time together to an end, I’d love to share a quote sent to me by a dear friend, words that Oprah wrote down and kept on her desk… words I can now say I’ve lived to understand. She wrote: “Never again will I do anything for anyone that I do not feel directly from my heart. I will not attend a meeting, make a phone call, write a letter, sponsor or participate in any activity in which every fiber of my being does not resound yes. I will act with the intent to be true to myself.”
Are you willing to find yourself, to know yourself, and to finally be yourself?
Each day, we have an opportunity to discover that there is so much more within us than we know… Don’t you see it? YOU are the unknown, and continually mining your potential when you aren’t even sure what it is…? That is the boldest choice you can ever make.
So, do I think I’d one day grace the halls of MIT in some capacity? Maybe… but I don’t know what’s ahead. All that I can commit to—all that WE can commit to — is to continue walking boldly into the unknown.