Turning Point

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Life Lessons from Jose Antonio Vargas, Undocumented American

About owning your truth, creating your destiny, and living with courage.

Do yourself a favor. On Sunday night at 9:00 PM (ET) tune into CNN to watch Jose Antonio Vargas’ new documentary, Documented. This past Wednesday, on invitation of Psychology Today and CNN Films, I had the honor to participate in a conversation with Vargas about his experience and his film. Here, I’d like to share three lessons that he taught me that night about personal development.

Documented: A Powerful Film.

Vargas is an undocumented American, one of the estimated 11 million that live in the United States. In the film, which he both wrote and directed, Vargas invites the viewers into the ordeal and the paradoxes of his life. Brought from the Philippines by his grandparents when he was only 12 years old, he discovered he was an undocumented immigrant when he turned 16; as he went to the DMV to apply for a driver's license, he bitterly discovered that his green card was fake. His world was shuttered. He discovered he was not like his peers. He experienced that ultimately he did not belong to the place he had considered his homeland. “Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn’t think of me as one of its own,” he wrote in an essay for the New York Times Magazine three years ago, when he outed himself as an undocumented American. Suddenly, a chasm was created between the life he had imagined to live and the one he was allowed to live. He felt shame, anger and delusion. From that day on, he lived in fear; the fear of being discovered, of committing a minor violation that would put him in big trouble, of being arrested, of being deported.

To hide and to lie about his situation appeared to be, for Vargas, the best strategy possible to still follow the dreams of his life. And for a long time, it seemed to work. “I was living the American dream,” Vargas says at one point in his film. In fact, still very young, he became a prominent journalist whose work was recognized with the prestigious and exclusive Pulitzer award. “On the surface, I created a good life,” he wrote. But his inner world was hell.

Jose Antonio Vargas embodied a lie, until it became unbearable. “I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore,” he wrote in his essay. He decided to expose his truth and let the masks, that over time had made up his persona, to crumble onto the ground. Now he stood naked in front of himself and in front of the world. Though still shivering, because of the possible consequences of his decision, he also felt a sense of liberation.

Jose Antonio Vargas’ journey is an inspiring story for all of us, even if we don’t share his situation as an undocumented American. And here are some of the life lessons that I took away from my meeting with him, last Wednesday at the CNN event.

Own Your Own Truth

We all have our own shadows in which we hide. We all have lies we live by, because we are afraid of facing our own truth. We are scared of facing the truths of our human condition. We are afraid of being rejected, of looking like fools, of not living up to expectations, of failing. Over time, we alienate ourselves from our own essence. We become our masks. We become our lies. We pretend to find happiness, but in reality we encounter deception. We pretend to find fulfillment and we fall into emptiness. Lying not only separates us from whom we are, it also prevents us to become who we are called to be. Lying disempowers us, while telling the truth empowers us; it gives us strength, insight, and it liberates us from existential fear and anguish. Facing and owning our own truth, sets in motion an extraordinary process of personal transformation and change.

Our Decisions Shape Our Destiny

Not that which could be observed on the surface of Jose Antonio Vargas’ life, but that which was going on in his interior world, reminded me that the quality of our lives is directly proportional to the quality of our decisions. At one point in his life, Vargas decided to lie about his own situation and at another point he decided to out himself as an undocumented American. On Wednesday, as I observed how Vargas was determined, courageous, clear-minded while sharing with all of us his reflections, I witnessed a man who was living a fulfilling and purposeful life, despite the external challenges that he still faces, but that he and a social movement of millions of people across America are determined to change. Our destiny is the outcome of our decisions. Our lives change when we realize the power we have to make a decision.

Life fulfillment is the result of courage

It took enormous courage for Jose Antonio Vargas to decide to stop lying, to stop running, and to out himself. It is a courage that he shares with the millions of undocumented Americans who are exposing themselves and fighting for their own rights and dignity. It is a courage analog to that of Rosa Parks when she stood up for her own right, and that of all African-Americans, to be recognized and treated as human beings. It is the courage that the awareness of whom you are engenders and that exposes the larger forces that have shaped until then your destiny. It is a courage that is like a lightning illuminating the dark sky. It is a courage that has the power to step on the breaks of the train of history. Because, as the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Nelson Mandela shows us, the transformation they created in the outer world is a reflection of the awareness and the changes that first happened in their inner world. Their lives and legacies are the result of great courage, inner strength, and extraordinary resilience.

So, on Sunday night, do a favor to yourself, and watch Jose Antonio Vargas’ film DocumentedConsider which aspects of his life speaks to your own personal experience and ask yourself: What contribution can you make to change the world for the better? What decisions in life do you need to make for yourself, for the changes you would like to see in the world, to happen?

Aldo Civico, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and a conflict resolution expert. He is an anthropology professor at Rutgers University and the founder of The International Institute for Peace.
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