A few months ago, I had a conversation with a lovely American woman whose secret longing was to travel to France for a month or two and explore its ancient cave paintings.
She imagined herself waking up to the fresh-baked smells of the boulangeries, quietly saying bonjour as she explored little shops, and getting close enough to touch those magical, ancient paintings that had held such a fascination for her since she’d heard of them.
There was only one problem with this plan, she told me: she felt guilty.
If she was going to rent out her Washington home and sneak away for a few months, shouldn’t she instead sneak away to Oregon, where her sweet little grandbaby was growing up? Shouldn’t she be the dutiful grandmother, babysitting in her free time, relocating to be nearer to family?
She had the money and the time to travel, being retired and living in an area where it would be easy to rent her home and store her personal possessions for a while. She knew exactly what she wanted to do. And, yet, this was the one thing holding her back.
I think this happens to a lot of us.
We find that what we can do, what we want to do, seems out of line with what we should do. We feel selfish. And so we hold back and we do what’s expected of us instead of what brings us the most joy.
But what we don’t understand when we’re thinking this way is that it’s all backward.
Bringing yourself joy isn’t always selfish. And doing what’s expected of you—by your culture, your society, your social circles, even your family—isn’t always the right thing to do.
As I listened to my new friend’s worries, I felt fiercely protective of her and her secret longing for France. And after a pause to collect my thoughts, I told her what I think is a under-recognized truth:
As a mother, a grandmother, an older sister, or a role model, one of the best things we can do is to live our dreams, to give ourselves permission to do something beautiful, to be brave, to strike out on our own, to stand up for ourselves, and to do the things that our heart has been longing to do.
Because as children and grandchildren and little sisters and mentees, we learn our value, our capabilities, our confidence, our strength, our role in the world from those who come before us.
As a grandmother, I asked her, don’t you want your grandchild to believe that her dreams have value? Don’t you want your grandchild to have every good thing she wishes for? To stand up for herself, to be brave, to do something new and scary and exciting? And, certainly, also to be selfless and love others, but to balance that with loving herself?
Because if that is your wish for her, go to France. Touch those cave paintings. Eat those croissants. Send her photos and letters. And then come back with new stories.
We don’t learn how to live by what people tell us; we learn how to live by watching people live.
And if we want our children and grandchildren and anyone else who learns something from our lives to live lives of joy, love, and breathtaking bravery, we, too, must live like that.
This is what I wish for my little sister. And so it’s how I live.
There is a time and an important place for self-sacrifice, for staying put, for choosing to delay a dream for a little while. But there’s also a time and place to show those who look up to you that you—and, by extension, they—are capable, brave, beautiful, smart, and absolutely, without a doubt, deserving of a brilliant, dream-filled life.