Beyond the Reef

Beyond the Reef

“How Far I’ll Go” (from Moana, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Mark Messina

I know everybody on this island
Seems so happy on this island
Everything is by design
I know everybody on this island
Has a role on this island
So maybe I can roll with mine

I can lead with pride
I can make us strong
I’ll be satisfied if I play along
But the voice inside sings a different song
What is wrong with me?

One of my favorite animated movies in recent years is 2016’s Moana. The story makes for a refreshing change from the princess-needing-rescue tropes, the music is stellar, and the heroine is someone I appreciate and admire. Listening to Moana’s personal theme, “How Far I’ll Go,” moves me to tears every time I hear it. Moana is a loving daughter and future chief, concerned with the welfare of her people, her island, and her family. She does her best to fulfill the expectations placed on her as the daughter of a chief, even though it comes at the expense of living out her adventurous, brave spirit. She can learn to be happy, she tells herself, if she can just fit herself into the mold she’s asked to fill.

It works for a while. Moana stays in her village on the island, keeping the peace and pleasing her family, despite being drawn to the open ocean with every fiber of her being. Eventually, though, she can’t convince herself that this is the life she was meant to live. Moana struggles with the decision to leave, wrestling with guilt as she disappoints her father and defies his edict to remain where he wants her to be. Understanding that his rigidity arises from his fear for her safety and his own traumatic experiences, she struggles to reconcile her love for her home and family with her bone-deep knowledge that she needs to leave.

What I love about this movie (besides the music—seriously, such good music) is how clearly and compassionately it speaks to the complexities of growing up and choosing your own path in life. Moana loves her family dearly, and she struggles with choosing a path she knows they don’t support. She tries to do what she thinks is best by staying put, even though in her heart she recognizes that her island is slowly dying and staying put will only hasten the end. She takes a huge risk in defying her parents and setting off on her own to follow her heart and lead in the way that is authentic to her.

We all face challenges in growing up and becoming who we want to be. For some of us, separating ourselves from our family of origin is a celebrated rite of passage, supported and encouraged. For others, it is an uphill struggle and we have to fight tooth and nail to establish our own identities as individuals. Families that struggle with boundaries often exert pressure on us to remain in our familiar roles, to stay put, to stay “inside the reef.” Moana’s story speaks eloquently to the internal war between guilt, excitement, passion, and self-affirmation as we seek our own path in the world against the wishes of those who want us to remain in a role they’ve become accustomed to.

Most of the time, there’s no ill intent in that; most parents want their children to grow up to be successful, independent adults. Like Moana’s father, many times our parents’ desire to control or limit their adult children’s independence stems not from hate but from fear and over-protectiveness. Moana’s father lost a dear friend to his own recklessness. Unable to forgive himself, he reacted by forbidding anyone to leave the island for fear of another death on his hands. Likewise, adults who have never healed their own hurts may unwittingly and unintentionally hurt their children’s development by protecting them to the point of smothering, possibly even leading to “failure to launch” and difficulty acclimating to adulthood when the children do leave the nest. Besides fearing the dangers of the greater world, families sometimes simply have a hard time coping with changes in what they’re used to. They may find it difficult to accept the loss of their own role as protector, authority, or provider, and may resist their child’s attempts to grow and establish independence.

Many of my clients worry about passing on their own or their parents’ problems to their children. They may be aware of their parents’ mistakes and want to avoid repeating them. They may feel unsure how to parent without smothering, or feel paralyzed by anxiety about doing the wrong thing and having their child resent them. The truth is, we will all mess our children up in some ways, because no one is perfect. I’m going to repeat that, because it’s that important: WE WILL ALL MESS UP OUR KIDS, BECAUSE NO ONE IS PERFECT.

More important than chasing something unattainable (perfection) is how we handle rifts in the relationships. Moana’s loved ones were able to accept that she had chosen the right path for herself, and ultimately for those she loved, and to celebrate her courage and leadership when she returned from saving the world. Not all families can show the same grace and humility, but that doesn’t mean the choice to find your own path was the wrong one. It just means we all have our sticking points, and that becoming who we are meant to be is worth the risk and the fear of the unknown. Be brave, my dears, set your course, and find out how far you can go.