I was just watching “In Plain Sight,” which is about a US Marshall by the name of Mary Shannon. This is the last season of the show since she just had a baby in real life, but that’s beside my point. In this week’s episode, Mary’s father, a criminal wanted by both the CIA and the gangs he used to travel with, comes back to her life. Being the tough, no-nonsense woman she is, she handcuffs him and turns him in to the government officials. Towards the end of the episode, he turns to her and tells her the following: “I am so proud of you…of everything that you’ve become when I gave you nothing.”
And it’s true. He abandoned her when she was seven-years-old. She grew up without the father she had grown to love and worship. Despite the loss of him, the poverty, and her mother’s alcoholism, she grew up to be strong, tough, independent, and a US Marshall, toting a gun and protecting those who entered the Witness Protection Program. She did it all without the aid of parents or the support they were supposed to give her while she discovered herself and her abilities.
Her father’s admission, his pride in her for becoming someone good and worthy when he wasn’t either one of those things, makes me think about the strength that it takes to become this emotionally intact when everyone and everything around you is precarious and chaotic. Where then do we get the strength from? Where does the resilience come from when no one has taught us about it?
With Mary, it comes from the need to prove herself. To prove that she doesn’t need the father who had at one time been her “partner” and then abandoned her. Proving ourselves worthy of love and parental affection is a strong factor in the success of individuals. Our success determines our worth. As much as she endeavored to prove to her father that she had been worthy of his love — the love he took away when he left — was a great incentive for Mary. So was knowing that her father was a criminal — and that she was the daughter of one. This knowledge made Mary determined to prove that she wasn’t like him. Parents can influence our actions, our self-esteem either way.
Quite like Mary, becoming autonomous, a woman with the kind of education that could always keep me employed, reinforced that I would never be like my birth mother. My education freed me from the fear of becoming like her, which is why I took 21 credits a semester, worked two jobs, and focused on attaining my degrees for ten years straight. Fear of becoming like her prevented me from failing. It wasn’t an option. It was the worst thing that could happen to me. As much as I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t anything like the woman whose blood coursed through my veins, I also needed to prove to my adoptive mother that I was worthy of her love. It was a goal that I never achieved. As I get older, I realize that it is useless to work at pleasing others; it’s even harder to please myself, for I often fall short in my own eyes.
When we lack parental forces to define us as good and smart and precious, we often need to assume this role of self-nurturer. Mary nurtured herself, finding ways of giving to her own self what her parents would not and could not give her. I also became resourceful in this task. I relied on literature and literary voices. I found mothers all around me to guide me. They were usually the moms of my friends, but they fed me — physically and emotionally in ways my two mothers would not and could not. I told myself that I was good; I deserved love; I was beautiful inside and out. No one did this for me. And because no one did, I make sure I give this language of self-love to my kids.
It takes courage to redefine ourselves — to pick up the pieces of our fractured self-esteem and put them back together in meaningful ways. It takes courage and resilience to fill the empty spaces our parents failed to fill with words of praise, self-kindness, and love. It takes even more courage to believe in these words, these self-fulfilled approbations. There is always this doubt that frames our experiences. After all, how can we believe it when our parents didn’t?
This is why it’s so important to give — even when we’ve been given nothing — because we all need to hear that we are worth love and hope. And to succeed — even when we were given nothing with which to make this possible. In the end, it is all up to us and no one else.