You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great… — Maya Angelou
“You don’t belong here.”
For the first 5 or so minutes that this woman was talking to me, I was hoping that my short responses to her questions would clue her in that I didn’t want to talk. I was just waiting for my wife and then I wanted to leave. But for some reason, she just kept talking to me and asking questions.
Her name was Kaye Cook and she led workshops for people transitioning out of the military. She worked largely with retiring officers. But she also worked with some enlisted folks and did workshops for people separating from service before retirement. And apparently she had a sixth sense about people’s gifts and whether or not those gifts could or could not be cultivated in the military.
“How long do you plan on staying in the military?”she inquired.
“Until I retire in thirteen years.”
”And then what? What are you going to do in retirement?”
”I like reading and writing. So I will probably do a lot of that. And probably traveling.”
“What kind of person will you be?”
”Hopefully I will get back to the person that I can’t be in the military.”
“And what kind of person is that?”
”Well, all of my life I have thought a lot about Jesus and spiritual stuff and human potential. But I can’t live off of that. So when I retire at 40, hopefully I’ll just be able to focus on that and maybe write about it.”
”Why do you assume that you will be able to get back to that person when you retire? After so many years of holding back a part of yourself, it might not be easy to just jump back to who you say you want to be. If you get paid to be someone you are not, that’s usually who you become.”
When she said that, she had my attention for sure. What she said made sense. I had wondered it myself already. As I was approaching my third enlistment, I had literally said to myself, “All I have to do is shut myself down for 13 years and then come back to myself when I retire.” Damn, how many of us make that kind of decision without ever questioning it. And now this woman, for some unknown reason, called me on this conundrum.
“INTJ, INTP, or somewhere in between the two,” she said out of context.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“That’s what I think you are on the MBTI.”
“I don’t know what that means either.”
“It is the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s like a personality inventory. Have you ever done one of those?”
”No. I don’t think a test can tell me anything about myself I don’t already know.”
”Well, I’ll make a deal with you. Take the test for me. If you come up as I said, I’ll have you over my house in DC for lunch and we can talk about your future.”
Who was this lady? And why was she getting into my life out of nowhere. I would soon find out. Because I took the test and I came up INTJ/P. Just as she predicted, I was literally smack dab in the middle of the two designations. I guess what I felt was intrigued. So I went to her house where she proceeded to explain that I didn’t belong in the military and that I had a choice between staying in and hoping I could get back to the person I wanted to be after I retired or get out when my enlistment was up and start discovering who I really was. Her follow up prediction was that by the time I got to my planned military retirement age, I will have figured it out and would then have the rest of my life ahead of me. What she didn’t tell me was that in order to get to that place I would have to make peace with never really fully belonging anywhere.
When I think about the above statement from Mother Maya, the part that sticks out to me most is, “The price is high.” Knowing some of what she experienced to qualify her to make that statement, I can understand why many of us would rather not realize the freedom of belonging no place.
From my earliest years, I was very aware that I didn’t belong in many places. Despite my best efforts to fit in, I stood out. With the exception of my family and network of “play cousins” through some of my mother’s close friends, I was instantly out of place in most places the moment someone said my name. I’m not going to get into all of the particulars right now because I’ve written about it before. But for those of you who are new to this blog or haven’t read posts where I reference this, my name influenced “out of place-ness” in the environments that I most frequented at a young age can be summed up in this post. But if you aren’t interested in reading the post, let’s just say that white and black people where I lived didn’t know how to relate to a black person named Pedro. This was at the time when people were usually designated as:
Despite my protests, because of my name, I was very often designated as “other”. And it took a long while for me to understand just how deeply that effected me—both positively and adversely. I just took it that I didn’t fit in because of some abnormal character trait that prevented me from presenting myself in a relatable way to some people. I am Black. But in some ways, from a racial perspective, for a long time it was if I were identity-less. And as a result, I often found myself lumped in with the other “others”—the mixed kids, the one Chicano kid, the Filipino kid, the Chinese kid, cliqueless kids, etc. And on either extreme were the American racial polarities of Blacks and Whites acting as racial gatekeepers. So it wasn’t until I was an adult that I could articulate why a black man can be named Pedro Senhorinha Ramos Monteiro Silva.
Part of the price I paid for learning how to express this was coming off as a challenger. This was referenced in my last post as well. So I won’t go too far into that story either. What I’m really trying to get at is that if you ever choose to define yourself in a world attached to labeling and putting people in their place, you are going to come off as a challenger. People love their boxes. That’s what so much of our safety is built on—fitting in the right boxes and being able to tell what boxes other people fit in. Sure, today we have more freedom to choose our boxes—unless you’re someone like Rachel Dolezal—but in a lot of ways, the box police are still in full effect trying to figure out who fits in where. Just look at how some people—to include black people and other people of color—came out against Kamala Harris, questioning her chosen boxes. And that is exactly the crap I think Maya Angelou was talking about—the high price for the freedom of not belonging.
Unfortunately, I was not able to discuss all of this with Kaye. She passed before I even got close to the time I would have retired. But, when I needed her, she showed up like an angel to help me ask the questions necessary for me to move closer to living my potential and perhaps the true freedom in my not belonging that a monthly paycheck could never give.