“Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember.” Willa Cather
Several years ago I read Orson Scott Card’s book Rachel and Leah. In Card’s retelling of the story of these two sisters, I began to wonder what it would have been like to be Rachel, the favored one. But as I continued reading, I found myself wondering more often what it would be like to be Leah? In the story, Rachel, the younger and more beautiful sister vies for and wins the heart of Jacob. Because ancient custom required the elder sister marry first, Jacob pays the price of marrying Leah (who also loves Jacob) in order to marry Rachel.
The more I thought about this story, the more I realized that Rachel and Leah are archetypes for women today. Do we as women believe we are Rachel, the favored one, the one who gets to dream and see those dreams come true, or do we more often believe we are Leah, the sister who must settle for whatever is handed to her by circumstance or chance. Unfortunately, I think most of us see ourselves as Leah, and this attitude of acquiescence I have dubbed “the Leah complex.”
Even more interesting to me was the notion that, as young girls, most of us would have aligned ourselves with Rachel – we absolutely believed in our dreams and our power to achieve them - but, over time, we come to believe that we are Leah.
Perhaps we stopped believing in our power to dream because our parents sent us the message that we were just shy of the perfection they were seeking for us. Maybe we dated or even married someone who needed us to support his dreams instead of our own. Or maybe we began to believe the pervasive message of the media – whose job is to get us to buy stuff – that if we just bought one more thing, whether a doll, a new pair of shoes or breasts, then we would could go after what we wanted.
As I grew up this belief began to play out in all aspects of my life. And, in retrospect I am surprised that it did as I reflect on something a family friend, Mr. Leetham, whom I greatly admired said to me when I was about eight -- “Whitney, you are going to be a heartbreaker when you get older.” I relished these words: and I believed him.
But you know what? I wasn’t a heartbreaker.
All through high school there was a boy that I liked – an unrequited love. You could fairly accurately predict whom this boy would like next, because in the months prior, his soon-to-be girlfriend would have become one of my best friends. Oh yes, and in an especially cruel turn of fate, in 9th grade, his best friend liked me. While it is no longer relevant whether this boy did or did not like me it does matter that I didn’t believe he ever would or even could. The other side of this Leah coin is that when a wonderful young boy did like me, one who took me on my first date, I couldn’t like him back. Because as Leah, I couldn’t believe that I had the power to make my dreams come true.
When I was eight, I was Rachel, but by 8th grade, I was Leah. My eight-year-old self believed absolutely that all my dreams, romantic and otherwise, would come true; eighth-grade Whitney no longer believed this.
Reclaiming the role of Rachel began when my husband and I got to New York. As I began to work, what my mother taught me - that women are capable - started to kick in. I saw some women, but mostly men working on Wall Street and thought I can do that! I want to do that! And, why make x dollars per hour when 10x that amount is possible? My husband (who happily could see more of Rachel in me than I could see in myself at that point) said – Agreed. You can have that. And, I eventually did.
My true comprehension that we are all Rachel came several years ago when I was asked in a women’s group about the women that had influenced my life. My thoughts first turned to Mrs. Leetham, our neighbor (and husband of the aforementioned Mr. Leetham), who had invited me into a youth choir and taught me to lead music.
But as I pondered the question, I began to feel a surge of gratitude toward my then-3-year-old daughter, Miranda. I realized that in observing her, I could understand not only what it was like to be a woman, but to be Rachel. Miranda revels in being a girl. There is a lovely pure femininity about her. She has a generosity of spirit. She is compassionate. AND she knows she is capable. She exudes confidence. Most little girls know they are Rachel, but then we forget. By watching young girls, we can re-learn this truth.
Will it be easy reclaiming the role of Rachel? Nope. But as Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister of Great Britain said, “If you want something done, ask a woman.”
Better yet -- ask Rachel.