When I was between the ages of 9 and 12, I was a Girl Guide. I wasn’t one of those kids who was hard-core involved, but I popped in and out of the groups (Brownies, Girl Guides) over a series of years.
I recall that we had weekly meetings in a local school gymnasium, did short haul hiking trails, went on overnight camping trips. I learned a whole bunch of skills, ranging from sewing to camping and survival, cooking, first aid, athletics, art and crafts, fishing, astronomy, community service, bird watching, canoeing.
As a Girl Guide, I wore the blue uniform with the diagonal blue sash. For outdoor activities, I wore the blue bucket hat. Both the sash and the hat were blank slates on which to affix earned badges that symbolized our accomplishments of learning or developing a certain skill. On our camping hats we added little crafts and pins and hand-made memorabilia.
There was a very clear expectation that we acquire badges, representing skills, experiences, and challenges. As individuals, we longed to attain as many badges as possible. The girls with the most badges were like decorated generals and very popular. The hats with the most stuff – an elaborate patchwork of woven plastic thingies and badges and crafts — were worn by the coolest girls, the counselors, the leaders.
A few weeks ago, a friend shared that he now perceived a difficult ‘shameful’ life experience as being one of his most important ‘badges of honor.’ My decorated blue sash and bucket hat immediately popped into my mind along with metaphorical ‘experience’ badges and symbols I have collected through my life thus far. These badges represent times that were really tough. Times when I thought I wouldn’t make it to the other side. Times for which I may now have regret or remorse. Times of deep nostalgia and wistful longing. Times of frank joy and love and connection and happiness. Simply put, they’re all just badges that I put on my invisible sash, my invisible camper’s hat, that symbolize my life.
It got me thinking: What parts of ourselves do we keep hidden from others? From ourselves? So many of us keep challenges and experience, real human and common experiences, hidden from the world because of shame and stigma. How can we reclaim those personal experiences and empower ourselves? How can we flip these experiences to be badges of honor, badges of experience, overcoming obstacles, evolving and learning and growing and surviving, even thriving? To reposition it from shame to “holy f*ck, good for me for living through that!” For coming out the other side and putting a badge on that sash.
I recently became Board Chair for a non-profit organization called Over the Bridge. Our mission is to change the conversation around mental health and recovery in the music industry. One of the most important areas of focus is reducing stigma so that people who are struggling can and will speak up and reach out. Stigma keeps the silence. Isolation tends to make the problem grow. Like certain plants that grow in the dark, so too does addiction and mental illness. Light brings clarity. With light, we see others going through the same stuff. As Johann Hari writes, “the opposite of addiction is connection.”
This isn’t just relevant in the mental health and recovery space. We see stigmatizing language impacting people in every corner of our lives – race, gender, orientation, religion, nationality, professional vocation, political alignment.
The main catalyst for writing my book Three Colors, Twelve Notes was to reflect, remember and catalogue different experiences, and perceive each and every one of them as an integral learning opportunity, a skill to develop, a challenge that I overcame or succumbed to, the experiential modules of my life.
Since that writing, and upon reflection, when I go deeper and get even more curious, I see that a life full of badges, real or metaphorical, good or bad, happy or tragic, is really a life full of human experience. A “full filled” life. And that I can’t do it alone.
What badges would you put on your sash?
What badges does society seem to value? Material, shiny things? Superficial, transient things? Do we have life skills to deal with adversity, adjust, adapt, connect and communicate?
What stigma needs to be removed in order to wear it proudly?
What are the events, experiences, skills, relationships, jobs, health issues, people, places and things that you have gone through, endured, succeeded through challenge, failed through, that you can gather and organize and collect in one place and look at as a collage of a rich and deeply engaged life?
How do you zoom out and notice how infinitesimal we all are?
We don’t get ‘badges of honor’ for the blissful, easy stuff. So, when life is difficult, as it is in the normal course of experience, it is important to remember there’s some truth to the cliches (nothing lasts forever, no mud/no lotus, etc. etc.), get mindful, and then start designing your new badge.