Maya Angelou Modelled what it Means to Live with Grace

by | Oct 15, 2022 | Giants

My First contact with Maya Angelou’s work

I first read ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou when I was an exchange student in San Diego, in the US.

For me at age 16 or 17 it was the first time that I found myself in an environment where I belonged to the small minority of white people.

I think at the time, that was as confusing and new as being surrounded by palm trees at school, a presence that until then was exclusive to vacations.

But as the High School was close to the Mexican border, some students even commuted daily, there were a lot of students, who did not grow up with English as their first language.

Which gave me the opportunity to attend a vocabulary building class, where we got to pick and read a new book every week. It was magical.

Thinking about starting this series, called ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’, I realized that I read quite a few life altering books in those six months.

A biography of Hellen Keller and Walden by Henry David Thoreau, just being two more, which I will write about here soon.

What I Noticed & What I Kept

When I read Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’, there were two things that stood out to me. The first one was her commitment to not speaking, after she felt like she caused the death of the person who raped her, when she revealed his name. While I never stopped speaking completely, I had long before stopped speaking about certain things. I think many of you might relate. Growing up, I experienced, that the information I shared with my parents was not safe. If I told my Mum an important secret, she would immediately tell her friends how cute that was, even with me standing right next to her. This was nothing specific to my parents, most parents around me acted that way. Yet, it hurt me and being who I am, it led me to not share any more information that seemed important, with my parents or any adults, basically until now. It also let to me being very withdrawn and private in general, and not trusting the people around me. But the problem with not speaking about what is going on inside, or what’s most important, is that it feels very lonely. Reading ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ I felt, for the first time, that I’m not alone with this. That I’m not the only one making hard decisions to protect myself and the only one who can stick to the decisions she made. Now, as it is with these kinds of decisions that we make as children to protect ourselves, they need to be questioned and get a new reality check at some point. In ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ a teacher comes to Maya, to encourage her to speak again. As my not speaking remained invisible to most, no one came to help me. And this is probably true for you too, if you function well in many ways, but have had to cast aside some aspects of yourself, that seemed not safe, or too much to handle at some point growing up. As adults, we can reintegrate these parts, though. I believe that we even have a responsibility to do so.

My Wish for You

I hope that you, too, take reading this as an invitation to check in with yourself, to see if there is something that you are not saying.

Were there any ways you acted that you learned you shouldn’t be acting? Were there things that were meaningful to you, that were not treated with respect?

Were there words, thoughts you were meant to say, but didn’t dare?

As children, we often can’t and don’t know how to break the silence. If it was actually unsafe, or just felt that way, doesn’t matter.

What matters is that now, we can help ourselves. We don’t need to wait and hope for anyone to see how much we’re suffering.

Often we don’t even notice that we are suffering because it has become our normal. We’re not shy or introverted, we have not learned to fully be ourselves, especially with others.

I believe it to be our responsibility to get the help we need, once we know that we can because otherwise our suffering has negative effects on everyone else.

If we’re too shy (afraid) to say what we know, we silence a part of ourselves and others miss the opportunity to hear our valuable contributions.

If we feel like we can’t be ourselves with other people because we try to please them, to read their minds, to avoid their anger, then of course we need to go home and recharge.

But we can learn and practice being ourselves, even with others, even if it’s hard.

The best way I found to overcome the fear of speaking my desires, and dreams and wishes and my feelings, was to get very clear on what I want, and to study what healthy self-respect looks like because it was nothing anyone had modelled for me.

Maya Angelou, however, is someone we can all study and learn from. She embodies, grace, self-respect, talent, poise and kindness like no other.

To be honest, I, personally, do not know anyone who would say they have grown up in a safe and free and warm and welcoming environment, where they had good role models when it comes to living in relationship with others.

It’s really difficult to figure it all out by ourselves, but we can look at people who have figured out some aspects of what we’ve not learned yet, and learn from them.

If you’re not sure how to do this, book an appointment with me, so we can figure out what it is that you’d like to unlearn to feel more free to be your true self.

There’s a bit more

The other thing that I found to be profound information, when reading ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was when she described the time when she just had her first baby.

In bed with her newborn, she was afraid to suffocate the baby. I can’t quite remember if someone told her to trust her instincts or if she got there herself, but she found this moment of trust in her inherent abilities and I guess our human goodness and automatic thriving to protect and nourish.

I still find it such a remarkable feeling, when we hear something that we haven’t heard before, that is contrary to what society has modelled for us, and to just know it to be true. The deeper I get to into this journey of self-discovery, the more it happens.

I don’t know how you came into this world, but when I was growing up, children were sometimes still kept in separate rooms from their mothers in the hospital and only given to them for feeding.

No one questioned that. I mean, many parents were told to let their baby cry it out, or that babies needed to learn how to soothe themselves and all these heartless lies, but deep down within we know.

And it takes so much effort to harden and protect ourselves from being kind and it causes so much confusion and fear.

Reading about it then significantly strengthened my confidence to keep trusting myself more than what I was taught and to feel into life more than to follow the rules, or what is normal. Even though, I did not ever speak about it, until now.

We all still have so much to learn and unlearn. But I know we can do it, for our own good, but also for everyone whose life touches ours.

Maya Angelou, a Source of Inspiration

Maya Angelou is such an inspiration, beyond those two personal early memories I have of her. Her quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” serves me as a daily reminder in my work and life. Her fight for racial equality, her life as an activist, performer, poet, writer, singer, is an example of what it means to walk with grace. Maya Angelou had the power to make us feel. And she modelled self-respect and how that can enable us to meet others and make them feel seen and heard. She modelled what it means to stand powerfully, firmly and be present and loving and kind. She brought an incredible amount of light into this world, and I am forever grateful. If you haven’t seen or heard her lately, watch this video of her.
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