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The Story of the Denim Jacket

Updated: May 24, 2021

A few days ago, I participated in a Headspace meditation titled "Honoring our Privilege". During the guided meditation, Rachel Ricketts, a racial justice educator, invited participants to explore, examine and acknowledge one’s privilege as well as how to use privilege to support those most marginalized in our society.

She walked through a guided imagery exercise that first asked us to imagine everyone standing on a starting line and then to:

Take a step forward if you are white
Take a step forward if you are light-skinned person of color
Take a step forward if you identify with the gender assigned to you at birth
Take a step forward if you are straight
Take a step forward if you are thin
Take a moment to note where you are in relation to others.  

Take a step forward if you are non-disabled
Take a step forward if you are financially secure
Take a step forward if you are a citizen of the country in which you live
Take a step forward if you are a non-Black person
Take a moment to note where you are in relation to others.

Source: "Honoring Our Privilege" meditation on the Headspace app

This guided exercise made me think about my childhood. After several years of applying without admission, I was eventually accepted at a top-notch private school in Dallas and privileged to receive an excellent education. Undoubtedly, this education provided me the opportunity to enroll at university and ultimately live out my boyhood dream of working on Wall Street. I am eternally grateful to my parents and to the school for providing me with this opportunity.

In addition to my learnings in history, math and science, I also was introduced to the strata of social society, as my school was attended by some of the elite families of Dallas. Surrounded by such privilege made me acutely aware of my own social status and economic standing, which was inferior to many of my classmates.

While the school’s uniform policy was the great equalizer, when the weather was cold in Dallas, students would wear their own jacket over the required uniform of white button-down shirt and gray slacks. In need of a winter coat, my single mother of modest means bought me a denim jacket from Goodwill. It was warm, so served its purpose; however, I had a deep shame about wearing a denim jacket from Goodwill when many of my other classmates had top-of-the-line designer jackets. None of my classmates ever said anything about the jacket - in fact, they probably had their own self-absorbed, adolescent issues with which to deal. Yet, I knew the provenance of the coat and wore it like a scarlet letter.

When I was in the eighth grade, I endured a spate of bullying by some of the upperclassmen. In addition to physical altercations, I also heard words spoken about me that made me feel inferior to my classmates. These psychological wounds, which I found near impossible to overcome as a child, disturbed me deeply, and propagated my own personal shame and diminished feelings of self-worth.

Now, with the hindsight of thirty years, I believe that the corresponding self-doubt generated both from the harassment incident and from the Goodwill denim jacket actually made me more determined to prove the bullies wrong and have a “successful” career. “Success” to me at the time meant monetary reward and accelerated career progression. For the next 25 years after I graduated high school, I drove myself deeper and deeper into my personal malaise while chasing my goal of financial success. While I was climbing the corporate ladder and had all the external trappings of a rewarding life, internally I was spiraling downward.

On the inaugural Mental Health Action Day this week, I attended The Atlantic's In Pursuit of Happiness summit. Professor Arthur Brooks from Harvard Business School discussed the paradox that arises from the misguided hope that focusing on work (and therefore money) brings happiness. In fact, achieving authentic happiness is so much more complicated than that. I look forward to exploring this topic further in future Social Musings blog posts.

Source: Arthur Brooks and The Atlantic

It took a near-death experience to finally wake me up out of my soul-destroying trance and make important changes in my life which would allow me to be a better person for myself, my friends and my family. Now with the benefit of the above schematic, I can fully understand that I was overeating at the "Work" buffet, and ignoring the other dishes of Faith, Family and Friendships. My life might have been enjoyable in some sense, but it was also severely lacking in Satisfaction and Purpose.

As I spoke about in last week’s post, we are all fortunate enough to be able to try to achieve ethical self-actualization ( no matter our background. This level of self-awareness is an advantage we ALL enjoy simply by being human beings (if you are interested in learning more check out this article from New Scientist:

Don’t allow yourself to shackle your own feelings and live an insidious lie driven by the shame of whatever might be represented by your own version of my proverbial denim jacket. I think Demi Lovato must know what I mean with their powerful and courageous admissions this week. Believe in your true self and all of the unique traits that make you a valuable member of our society. Our collective future depends on it.

Connect with me on social media so we can take this conversation further:

Note to readers:

The Headspace meditation mentioned above is available for free on the Headspace app.

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What they never taught us at those privileged school was the art of living and growing out of ego stories.

We're wounded but probably a lot less than those mentioned in the Headspace mediation exercise. Yet, we should ask why??

Glad we're flourishing and helping others to do as well. Thank you!

Austin Rosenthal
Austin Rosenthal

Thank you for your thoughts and for the discussion!!! We are all in this together.

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