It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are

What makes for happiness and self-acceptance over the long haul? When confronted by inevitable disappointment, how is it that some people are able to breathe new life into them, while others become disillusioned and cynical?

An early mentor of mine was an actor and stage manager named Henry Sutton. He never became a household name, yet as he aged, he remained a working actor. He once told me he was glad to have worked in his chosen profession for as long as he had. Henry told me that each role was as big as you make it. For me, he was a living example of the truism — “There are no small roles, only small players.”

Henry’s homily is brought to mind every day while walking my dogs. On a small alleyway, there lives an almost 93-year-old woman named Betty. She is such a vivid presence in our small town that the little fence surrounding her house is always filled with visitors. A lover of animals, Betty prepares treats for Lambertville’s myriad of canines. These goodies are set out in three containers, specially sized for the various breeds. Dogs literally run to her place, and sometimes there is a line-up waiting several blocks back.

Betty is also a seamstress, still at work hemming and altering clothes for neighbors. In describing her past, she recalls coming of age during the height of the Depression. Times were very difficult and her family, as with many others, needed to scrimp and save to get by.

A friend of Betty’s family was a nurse and offered her an opportunity to attend nursing school. The monthly $12 tuition was too costly, and made it impossible for her to attend. She eventually became a nurse’s aide and caretaker at nursing homes. Betty remains optimistic, staying abreast of civic affairs, recycling, and is always up to date with current events. This is one 93-year-old who is sharp, intelligent and perceptive, living life well in her little corner of the world. One reason for her overall cheerful attitude seems to be that she accepts the terrain of her life as it comes, with all of its peaks and valleys.

As a young acting student in New York, I earned money working as a hat check girl in a piano bar, “Mimi’s.” It was a lively atmosphere, and stayed open until 4 a.m. Performers often came in after their shows to moonlight by singing with René, our bartender — someone who had once dreamed about singing arias at the Metropolitan Opera. It was a very congenial place and they pampered me by permitting me to sit at the end of the bar and study my roles for acting class.

One of our regulars was a very young Barbra Streisand. As money was scarce, she, at the time, was sleeping on her press agent’s floor. Barbra had taken acting classes in New York since she was in her early teens, and already had years of work behind her. I really liked her, and it was always wonderful when she began to sing. Her career was just about to burst open with a starring role in a Broadway musical, “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.”

I remember asking her press agent why was it that she, although very talented, was so obviously going to have a successful career? “Well” he told me, “Fanny Brice is dead and there is a place on Broadway for only one Jewish star.” Continuing, he said, “and it will be Barbra and not you this time around.” He did not mean this with any heartlessness, but rather to serve me a reality check.

Over the years I grew to acknowledge so much of the adulation given to people like Barbra is based on more than talent and hard work. It requires chutzpah, timing, and luck. Not achieving stratospheric acclaim does not mean one cannot live, as Henry Sutton so aptly modeled, a very happy and rewarding life.

People like Henry and Betty may ultimately be happier than many other celebrities. Disenchantment and disillusionment, including a lack of self-acceptance flourish in a world where so many aspire to the iconic stature that only a few achieve. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame was a disingenuous gift and has given us people, like the late Anna Nicole Smith, who are famous for being famous, and former child stars, like Lindsay Lohan, who are seemingly hell-bent on self destruction.

Throughout his shortened life, Michael Jackson lamented not having a childhood, and attempted to recreate what he missed in fantasy form. As an adult, he continually changed his physicality and often appeared masked. In death, the sorrow of his life seems to have been brushed aside and replaced with idolatry and illusion.

Perhaps it would be more useful to look squarely in the face of the person who suffered, and who, in all likelihood was guilty of pedophilia and drug abuse. Jackson lost his sense of self as a child living under the spotlight of fame while in a household where he said he had experienced abuse. Who can know what complexity and difficulties his three children will face.

Without being put on a pedestal, children can be encouraged, supported and given a secure psychological foundation. Children learn to accept themselves by being encouraged, supported, and given a secure psychological foundation, not by being put on a pedestal. Being designated with “center of attention” status can be weighty, and often is not in the child’s best interest. When a particular child in a family is put center stage, relationships both with their siblings and their peers can be irrevocably strained or damaged.

Self-acceptance is vastly different from complacency. Self-acceptance and knowing oneself does not mean shying away from challenges or risks. Self-acceptance entails both the acceptance of self and of others, a lesson that can be taught and continually learned again. The poet, e.e. cummings, had it right — “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

I remember my own epiphany when I realized that, although I would never be a Barbra Streisand, it was all right with me; that I had my own unique gifts and there were many significant ways I could make use of them. A valuable lesson is to take each day in the best way acknowledging our own uniqueness.

”What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” There is much wisdom in this quote of Crowfoot, the Native American Blackfoot warrior.

Learning how to accept oneself with dignity and celebration is a worthy and achievable aspiration. Henry and Betty are my models of self-acceptance, and how I aspire to live my life. Perhaps you are already there? If not take a walk around your block, or traverse your own Memory Lane and unearth the treasures already there.