Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Letting go of pretence

No matter how long a log stays in the water, it doesn't become a crocodile. (Mali)

Dear Zayda,

We can admire people, and we can even pattern our lives on the lives of others. But only one original exists, and all else are carbon copies.

Singers on talent shows, like American Idol, have weeks when they perform songs by well-known singers. However, they judges are always looking for to see where the performers are bringing their unique talent to the song.

Fantasia, the winner a few seasons ago, sounded to me like Aretha Franklin. If she continued to sound like Aretha, Fantasia could have been no more than an Aretha imitator. She needed to find her own voice and her own personality on stage. Besides, even if she spent a lifetime trying to be Aretha, she would still be Fantasia. She would have failed at being Aretha, and failed at being herself. For the record, Fantasia has been herself, with all the challenges that can come from letting others see us as we are.

Our unqualified success in life is in being our true selves. We can do that better than anyone else.

Howard Daly was a dancer, singer, musician, and personal coach. He loved life and he loved people. A doctor commented that when Howard was on the hospital ward, his presence brought about changes nurses and doctors had never seen in the hospital.

No one is likely to build a monument to Howard. No one is likely to name streets after Howard. He died last weekend without leaving children by blood or any more than basic possessions. But all who knew him have a memory of a person who was true to himself and could therefore be true to others. He brought a sense of peace, because he was at peace with himself.

He was therefore free to show his heart, the unique part of all of us. Sometimes we want to be ourselves, but we are scared that others might see us without the masks that we think protect us. Many times other people have already seen behind the masks, but they may keep up the pretense because that is what they think we want. They may be wearing masks of their own, so the game might be that they leave our mask alone if we leave theirs alone.

Masks serve a purpose. Our ancestors had to wear masks to protect themselves. They had to pretend to be happy so slave-owners would not know they were planning to resist their bondage. Jonkunnu, Carnival, and Mardi Gras allowed people to relieve stress by pretending to be someone or something else. They could say and do things without being seen for who they really were. But no matter how long we wear the mask, we never can become the face of the mask. We may even forget who we truly are and find ourselves faceless.

So, Zayda, if we are a log, let’s be a great log. Let's seek the sunlight since the log that stays in water too long will probably rot. Others may be scared of the log for as long as they fear it is a crocodile, but the secret will be out when the log is exposed as having no scales or teeth or tail. Or life of its own.

My grandniece, you bring the unique you to this life. You have special qualities that your world needs. Mask when you have to or need to. But seek always to free yourself to be yourself.


Your shangazi Nothango (Yvonne)

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When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at