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In the film ALL IS TRUE (directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh), William Shakespeare (yes, THAT William Shakespeare) didn’t realize how intensely he pressured his son Hamnet to be like him. Shakespeare meant well, but his expectations were too heavy a burden to bear. His son wasn’t able to mirror him. His daughter Judith, who did possess some of his genius, wasn’t allowed to express it because of her gender. Judith could only hope to pass on her talents to male heirs. Shakespeare’s expectations nearly alienated his daughter and finally killed his son, his most precious possession.
In contrast, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was pushed by her mother to fulfill herself. When she began to question her ability to remain beyond what was traditionally expected of a woman, Ruth’s husband Marty cheered her on and refused to put his career first. Her daughter Jane reminded her that the gender equality Ruth was fighting for in court after court would matter. “You’re doing it for me” was Jane’s line in the film ON THE BASIS OF SEX. In fact, RBG eventually became an indomitable force on the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, literary license aside, what’s the difference between expectations that cripple and those that lend flight? Like the expectations we load onto ourselves, expectations must be grounded in reality—no more, no less. In the film, Hamnet didn’t have the raw materials of a writer. He wasn’t verbally talented at all. Raw materials matter.
When I was teaching high school, I had a boy in the musical I was directing who told me he wanted to be a professional dancer on Broadway. “Have you had any training?” I asked, knowing he probably didn’t because he lacked finesse in even simple dance movements. ”Professional dancers have years of training.”
“I had a class last semester,” he told me. “I’m going to New York right after graduation.” He wouldn’t be dissuaded. He went. And he soon returned. It was a depressing experience his dance instructor could have helped him avoid if she had been honest with him.
Sometimes we need someone outside ourselves to lend an objective eye about what kinds of resources we have. Ruth’s husband stood by her as she used her education in law to battle for gender equality. Even she, a paragon of intelligence and integrity, occasionally lost confidence that she could deliver her vision. With her family cheering her on, she won her confidence back and used it to pursue her goals. We can’t be afraid to stretch and use what we’re given plus what we learn if we want to finish the trail we were sent to travel. We have to keep a firm hold on reality. As we face a new year that’s going to confront us with fresh challenges, we should be clear about who we are and what we want from this life. In ALL IS TRUE, Shakespeare advises a potential writer to write from his own truth. And so must we all.