Sunday, July 14, 2019

Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover

What brought me to this book?
To be honest, I really just needed a break from all the emotionally reflective books I've been reading as of late and this has been on my list for a while. A lot of people have recommended Educated, including Bill Gates. So I figured now would be a good time.

What did I think of the book (in a nutshell)?
Educated is the memoir of a woman, born to survivalist parents, who grew up in rural Idaho. She lived a life I could never imagine. For example, her parents believed doctors were out to kill people, not help them; the number of near death experiences in her family and recoveries without the help of doctors thoroughly astonished me. Her parents also proclaimed that "public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God." Instead of being home schooled, though, Tara was put to work in the family's junkyard business. When she was a teenager she finally decided to go against her parents wishes, educating herself well enough to pass the ACTs, and getting into BYU (having said that she was wonderfully home schooled in her application). There's plenty more to her story, but that gives you an idea. She had a life unlike anyone I know. It was fascinating...and heartbreaking.

One of the themes that resonated the most with me was watching her journey to find her herself. This is something I feel like I've been trying to do my entire life...and still am. While I believe that we are fluid beings, always changing, I maintain (or hope, I guess) that we can find our root identity. That with great reflection and work we can chisel away that which we adopt to please other people and scuff off that which other people force upon us. Sometimes I still feel so far from finding my core, yet I know that I have excavated many layers since my teenage years. And really, that's often what keeps me going.

Reading about how Tara navigated this journey was enthralling and inspiring. One of my favorite ruminations was something a teacher of hers told her: "You are not fool's gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. [...] You are gold. And returning to [...] that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself - even gold appears dull in some lighting - but that is the illusion. And it always was."

When I think about her entire story I'm also reminded just how different each of our histories are. Unfortunately, I suspect that we impose our histories on others, and in some respects expect them to react like we do because that's what makes sense to us. While it's impossible to truly see through someone else's life-lens, I have to remind myself how important it is that we seek some sort of understanding of their lens rather than simply judging or criticizing them. I have failed to do this a number of times and those relationships never prospered. When I've been brave enough to seek someone's history and fortunate enough that they blessed me with their story, a bond was created that surpassed our differences. Did I all of a sudden understand everything about them or agree with everything they did? No. Rather, my goal was to hear them, understand them better, and to accept them as they were in that moment in time.

As much as we try to change people (I'm undeniably guilty of this), we won't succeed. Change needs to come from them. A number of people tried to change Tara by pressuring her to go to the doctor or by forcing their will on her. Tara's lasting change, though, came from herself. If we're fortunate enough to be in someone's story we should encourage growth where growth is available and motivate them when they are stuck. Tara was blessed to have people who did this for her throughout her life. Without them who knows where she would be today.

This has made me contemplate what stories I've been fortunate enough to be included in and to evaluate whether I'm engaging in a way that promotes their maturation. Verdict: while the self-reflective work I've been doing has been good and necessary, in order for me to be there for others in the way they need me, the best thing I can do is get out of my head and stop focusing so much on myself. I know...it's such an obvious statement, but, as an analyzer, not something I'm great at. I also need to truly listen and seeking understanding, but know that I won't be able to change them. I can help promote change, but they have to do the work themselves.

It has also made me wonder who I need to seek more understanding of. Who's story needs to be heard and who's life-lens will lend strength and diversity to my life? Verdict: I will concede that I'm guilty of judging quicker than I am of seeking understanding (and, sadly, I don't think I'm alone in this). I'm working to change this instinct in me, but it will likely be a lifelong work in progress. Ultimately, every person I come in contact with is a person who has a story and deserves to be listened to, whether I agree with them or not.

Finally, I've had to appraise who I've invited into my story. Are they helping me flourish, keeping me stagnant, or hindering growth? Are there people who say they want to help me develop, but don't seek the understanding of my life-lens; who want to force change upon me or "improve" me in ways that are part of their identity and aren't congruent with mine? Are there people truly willing to help me mature that I've kept at a distance and refused to let into my story or with whom I need to be more vulnerable?

Final verdict
I recommend this book to all. The stories, struggles, and teachings of her life were inspiring and captivating.

Ultimately, I find that when we experience people with different histories than ours (even in books) it broadens our minds and souls. It reminds us how diverse this world is. How complex humankind is. How strong we can be as individuals and how much stronger we can be as a community when we seek understanding and encourage growth rather than shaming and condemning others.

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