Sink or Swim: The Task of Autonomy

Lately I’ve been intrigued by an image that disturbs me: the image of Virginia Woolf walking into a lake, the pockets of her dress weighted with stones to ensure the likelihood of her death by drowning. Unfortunately, she succeeded with this fourth suicide attempt, and died at the age of 59. I discovered this incident recently while doing research on her book, A Room of One’s Own. I first read Woolf while taking a Women’s Studies course many years ago, and can still remember the impact that this particular book had on me, with its treatise on autonomy and independence. The premise of the book is that every woman needs a room of her own and sufficient funds to pay for the necessities of life in order to develop her own thoughts and creativity. The seed of this idea embedded itself firmly in my psyche, generating a course of events that has since become my lifes work; how to develop autonomy and teach it to others. Autonomy can be described as the power we have within us to direct our energy towards creating the life we wish to live. It is the knowledge that we are the owners of the life we create.

During that same time period, I was also learning about Abraham Maslow's theory of self-actualization, which suggests that within each of us there is an impulse to grow, to develop our talents to their full potential. As I studied further, I came to understand that the course of our lives is largely determined by our thoughts, which generate our actions. If we learn to become more conscious of our thought processes, especially habits of thought that generate negative emotions, we can better create fulfilling lives which effectively express our talents. I became motivated to learn how one could develop more conscious thinking and become self-actualized. Woolf’s suggestion of having a room of one's own was beyond my realm of experience, however. In those days I was the single parent of a toddler, had very low self-esteem, no degrees and limited skills. Still, the idea of developing my talents felt natural and right, so I tucked away the notion that I would somehow find my way to that room of my own. Back then, I could easily identify with the confusion and desperation that Woolf must have felt in contemplating suicide. Weighted down by burdens of fear, past traumas that had never healed, bitterness and frustration over the constriction of women’s role in society, she sought an end to her agony.

As I was imagining the scene of Woolf's demise, another image intruded into my mind. This one was of Ada, the main character in Jane Champions provocative film, The Piano. At a crucial point in the film, Ada must cast her beloved piano into the sea, as its weight compromises the safety of their boat voyage. As the piano descends into the ocean, a rope attached to it catches hold of Ada’s ankle and pulls her into the depths of the sea.

Like Woolf, Ada lived during a time when women’s roles were largely determined by the men in their lives, and had emotional scars that influenced her experience of life. Mute from a childhood trauma, she was locked within a world of silence and repression, eased only by music and her relationship with her daughter. Unlike Woolf, the course of Ada’s life was transformed through relationship with a man who honored her passion, tempering the burden of her past trauma and opening her to a more effective expression of life. This transformation was beset with numerous difficulties and losses, but the outcome was well worth the struggle that ensued. Ada came to learn that her passion did not reside within the piano, but within her being, and that there were other ways of expressing this passion besides playing the piano. Further, by owning her passion, she discovered a release of energy that spilled over into other areas of her life, creating a more effective and rewarding expression of her natural talents. In effect, she was moved towards autonomy as a result of the changes in her life. Autonomy is stimulated through contact with caring, nourishing people who recognize and value our unique talents. In this way, esteem is built and becomes the constant stimulant of autonomy.

As Ada is pulled deeper into the sea, there is a moment of indecision as to whether or not she will succumb to the thought that she cannot live without her piano. As she momentarily hangs suspended in the depths, I found myself urging her to reconsider her life, to connect with the passion that was just beginning to awaken her potential. Then, with a fury, Ada begins to fight for her life to disentangle her leg from the rope that is holding her down. She leaves behind the instrument that held her passion in check and ascends to the surface of a new life, where passion is an element of every activity and she can be her own person. In this way, she chooses autonomy and independence, separating herself from the constriction of her previous life.

I do not mean to belittle Virginia Woolf’s mental anguish, nor to suggest that it is easy to overcome a lifetime of emotional distress. My intention is to illustrate the difference in the outcome of these two women’s lives, given a change in the course of their thinking. As Viktor Frankl suggested in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, we always have the choice to control our thoughts and our attitudes, regardless of the circumstances of our lives. I took this suggestion to heart many years ago, and found it to be true…as I changed my thinking, my experience of life changed as well, from limitation and frustration to expansion and exultation.

Though we all long for that room of our own and an end to financial struggles, true independence or autonomy cannot be bestowed upon us by others. Rather, it must be understood that independence is a state of mind and autonomy is a state of being that both must be chosen, daily and willfully, by our thoughts. As a concentration camp survivor, Frankl observed how ones attitude is an essential factor in determining life experience. Though we cannot always control the circumstances of our lives, we can learn to control our thoughts and our attitudes towards those circumstances.

It is unfortunate that Virginia Woolf was not privy to the kind of information or experience that could have led her to a more fulfilling expression of life. However, I am a firm believer in the admonition that chance favors the prepared mind. There is a lot to be said for making ones own way in the world, of taking advantage of opportunities that present themselves as we grow and change. Ada took advantage of the opportunity to learn of passion, choosing to risk the safety and security of her previously constricted life.

It seems the real task of autonomy is to find that room of one’s own within ourselves…in our minds and our hearts, where it becomes a bedrock of our personality. Being autonomous and independent need not relegate us to aloneness as well. As in all things, balance is necessary to the healthy personality, and relatedness is essential to life. We can learn ways to develop autonomy while maintaining relationship; we can pursue a creative life while raising children and/or working…it will not be an easy task, but it will become a rewarding journey. Further, we can find meaning in the hardship, the struggle, the pain of our lives…we can learn to swim with the tide rather than sink into the lure of escape. It all begins and ends with our thoughts, and what we choose to think about. With this in mind, I leave you with this image: Ada chooses to free herself from the rope that is holding her down…hurrying to the surface, she bursts out of the water and fills her lungs with the breath of new life, a life that will inevitably guide her towards fulfillment, swimming in a sea of possibility.

© 1997 Marybeth Bethel