by Anita Mandley
One of my earliest memories is a casual warning from my Aunt Mildred. I must have been 4 when, rustling up breakfast, she said: “Anita, don’t ever cut your hair. As dark as you are, you won’t have anything going for you.”
She said it without malice, like a warning against a change of weather—something that could not be helped but could be minded with a raincoat. A bit of common sense. I don’t remember what we had for breakfast.
New Orleans had imparted a lesson to the women of my family, an old New Orleanian-Creole family, that their worth would be measured against the hallmarks of white beauty, namely long straight hair and light skin. Aunt Mildred’s was a warning against cutting off the source of my value.
Warnings such as these were abundant in my childhood and could come from anywhere: from the white lady behind the counter of the big department store Maison Blanche telling me to get out and go around back; or from Birmingham, through my grandma’s black-and-white TV, as news broke of four girls about the same age, religion and color as me, dead from a bomb set off at their church.
These warnings, taken together posed a question: Do I have any value as I am? And that question, repeated so many times, became a feeling, a deep fear that paralyzed me in all kinds of situations. Speaking to strangers or handling mundane conflicts with friends, I might suddenly go numb, even freeze, hardly able to speak or move. Few saw that my habitual coolness and sudden disconnections were born of fear. Instead, people pegged me as arrogant, aloof or even cold and uncaring. My friendships suffered. By the time I was in college, I was lonely. But I didn’t know how or even whether I could free myself of fear. I thought it was just one of those things that couldn’t be helped.
One day, one of the few friends I did have told me about Buddhism, a philosophy that teaches each person is equal to the universe. I said I’d like to know more. She took me to a party to meet some friends. One young man, showing off a bit, recited a passage from Nichiren Daishonin’s “Letter to the Brothers.”
Like poetry, I thought. And the poet was calling on me, across an ocean of time, to win over my fear and discover a life of courage. Something in me stirred: Could I do that?
My first district, Lotus District, overflowed with youth. Until that point, large groups caused me to freeze and withdraw, but my district women’s leader wouldn’t stand for it. She encouraged me fiercely to make some kind of cause for the success of every meeting, by leading gongyo, sharing the basics or speaking to someone new to the practice.
“Just encourage one person!” she would tell me. “That’s your mission as a Buddha!”
This way of thinking really worked for me. Chanting before every meeting, I thought to myself: Just one person! When I turned to speak and saw all those faces looking back at me, I didn’t stiffen. Instead, I remembered there was one person somewhere in the room who needed encouragement. I had to give it my best. In essence, I told that person: You can move the universe; you can become happy! Each time I did this, I developed a little more confidence in myself. I began to carry my chin up and engage others more openly. I did this again and again until that message took root in my life as the conviction that my life had value.
When I turned to speak and saw all those faces looking back at me, I didn’t stiffen. Instead, I remembered there was one person somewhere in the room who needed encouragement. I had to give it my best.
That conviction faced many tests over the years. A bout with Bell’s palsy has left one side of my face a little droopy. A tumble I took to the ground has given a little limp to my walk. I got breast cancer twice and twice I beat it, but the chemo made my hair, thick since I was a little girl, grow back thin. I faced each test with fierce prayer and by studying Nichiren’s and Ikeda Sensei’s writings, all the while sharing how I used the practice to win over any doubts about my value.
Buddhism gave me the framework to think about things like historical, cultural and multigenerational trauma. The fears I struggled with for so long were, I knew, part of a larger fear in the making lifetimes before me. Buddhism gave me the language to acknowledge the bigger, older story to which my life belongs, and the means to derive value from it.
With this understanding, I have pursued a career as a psychotherapist, specializing in childhood and intergenerational trauma. I teach graduate school and workshops where I find myself speaking at times to hundreds of people. I don’t freeze but think instead of the one person who needs encouragement. With that person I share Sensei’s words:
Hope is the force that enables us to take action to make our dreams come true. It has the power to change winter into summer, barrenness to creativity, agony to joy. …
We must embark on the challenge of creating a new reality. It is in that effort that true, undying hope is to be found. (July 20, 2018, World Tribune, pp. 6–7)