Emily, 30, United States (Beirut, Lebanon)

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What is your story of strength?

I would say a lot of it started with living with a military family. From as early as I can remember, I moved every two to three years of my life and that was normal for me. I didn’t realize until much later that it wasn’t normal for other people.It was a challenging childhood but also a beautiful childhood because I got to experience all kinds of cultures. I think I grew up with a sense that I was no different from most people in the world from a very early age, which I am very grateful for. It has also become a source of strength for me as I’ve gotten older.

When I was 11, that world completely fell apart because my father passed away from brain cancer, which was hugely traumatic. In a way, I am grateful for it as well because everyone has some tragedy in their life. In the grand scheme of things, I can look at the tragedy that I went though and think I still had an amazing father for 11 years. My mother is an insanely strong woman. She raised three children by herself through adolescence, which makes me feel claustrophobic just thinking about. In the grand scheme of things, I had a great early life even though I had this tragic thing happen to me. I have the feeling that I can handle anything now.

What is a gender norm or expectation that you wish didn’t exist in society?

I think about the concept of vulnerability a lot. It is often associated with womanhood in a very negative way. I think both men and women associate being public about your vulnerabilities or shortcomings with weakness and with femininity but in the negative connotation. I think femininity is awesome but being realistic about the patriarchal world we live in, a lot of the times it is associated with negative traits. You have this discourse of “hyper strength” and being strong all the time and never saying that you can’t do something, or something is beyond you, or that you’re struggling with something. Think about how powerful it is to hear someone talk about something they’ve struggled with in a public way. That revolutionizes the world but we don’t do it because we are socialized to think that doing so is weak and feminine. And I think that is a really subtle thing to break through.

There’s this great quote, Muriel Rukeyser said, “If a woman told the truth about her life, the whole world would split open.” I think that applies to everyone- not just women, not just men- if you told the truth about your life and we were all more honest with our vulnerabilities and shortcomings, that would change the world we live in.It is something I struggle with, actually. I identify as a strong person, with strong opinions. I know what I like and know that I want. So for me to say I am not sure about something is very hard and I can feel myself struggling against that gender norm even though I am aware that it is a toxic norm.

Can you tell me about a time you failed?

I’ve always had a very sarcastic sense of humor. For a long time, I hid my insecurities behind a biting sarcasm that was also very judgmental. That was something I did through high school and parts of college. I am very uncomfortable with the fact that I did that… that I felt comfortable judging people and making fun of people for how they look or how they dress. When I was in college I ran for and was elected President of our tour guide association. There was a girl in that association that I did not get along with. After I was elected as President, I made some very cutting remarks about her to mutual friends, and it got back to her. Not only did I fail as a person, not being kind to another human. I also failed as a woman, undercutting another woman. And I failed as a leader. While in a leadership position, I was not a leader. She confronted me about (to her credit and I am grateful she did). I had to eat crow and say you’re right and I’m sorry that wasn’t cool. I had to follow up with people and explain that it was inappropriate. It was incredibly humiliating. I learned a lot from that situation but I still feel embarrassed about it because I really really tanked on that one.

Other than your gender, what are the defining characteristics of who you are?

I think of myself as a storyteller. I am a historian by profession and am fascinated by stories and narrative. Joan Didion is one of my personal heroes. She says, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I deeply believe that. The stories that we tell ourselves are incredibly important. I am always interested in the stories people tell themselves about themselves and about the world around them- to me, there is nothing else. I am also a bit of a glutton. I love really good food and good wine and happy experiences. Well, perhaps not a glutton, but a maximalist. I am a big fan of maximalism in life.

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