Twenty-one years ago today I was born Ernest Lee Owens Jr. at Michael Reese Hospital. I weighed 7 pounds and 6 ounces.
I have made numerous transitions throughout my life — moving from Chicago to Houston, from inner-city public schools to the Ivy League.
For most of my life, I aimed to prove others wrong. I strived to defy the socioeconomic gravity that tried to pull me down. It wasn’t until 21 days ago that I woke up and realized I never had much control over my life.
Yes, I have free will, but rarely stop to question my decisions. Why have I been a Christian for such a long time? Why haven’t I been able to fall and stay in love? Why is the ghost of my absent father so visible in my life? When will I start living for myself? I shared some of these questions with a friend, who in turn, gave me a book I will never forget.
In the New York Times bestseller, “Eat, Pray, Love,” Elizabeth Gilbert details a journey she took across the world in an attempt to rekindle her love for life. In the beginning of the book, she writes, “You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”
As simple as Gilbert’s call to action sounds, it can be hard to live by. I experienced this first-hand over the past three weeks as I tried to live by those words.
The first thing I changed was my diet. I’ve always had a fascination with veganism but never thought to try it. The idea of letting go of my favorite sidekicks — meat and dairy — seemed daunting. But I needed something to help me develop self-discipline and temper my indulgences. Veganism was perfect.
Adopting a vegan diet helped me become more spiritual. I felt a sense of inner confidence that enabled me to exercise my beliefs and challenge my self-control.
Call it karma, but I also shed 15 unwanted pounds that I had gained over the summer.
The second thing I did was explore other faiths. I was raised in the Pentecostal Christian Church. Although I enjoyed the spiritual aspects of my family’s religion, I found certain rules burdensome and difficult to practice. Over time, I became curious about other religions, notably Judaism, but never fully explored them until now.
This year, during Yom Kippur — the holiest holiday in the Jewish calendar — I fasted for an entire day and read scripture from the Torah. As described in Leviticus 23:27, Yom Kippur is considered “a sacred occasion for you” where “you shall practice self-denial.”
I connected deeply with this idea of self-denial and meditated on it as I fasted and practiced veganism.
The message of self-denial also made me reflect on my love life.
I’ve always had unstable romantic relationships and I never understood why. But recently, I’ve come to connect the dots.
I haven’t seen my father for the last 15 years of my life. There have been no birthday cards, financial support — nothing. As much as I have been able to succeed without him, his absence hurts and affects the way I view people.
Two weeks ago, I finally opened up and shared my thoughts with a mentor I truly respect — Chaplain Charles Howard. The chaplain listened patiently and gave me the courage to pick up the phone and call my dad, something I haven’t done in years.
The lessons of self-denial allowed me to forgive my father and reconcile our differences. Although things are not going to be perfect by any means, I have found the closure that for years, I have longed for.
But why should you care? Because most of us have turned or will turn 21 at Penn. This milestone marks a new beginning — it’s when you are grown. Turning 18 is a bit of a joke, whereas 19 and 20 are just rest stops to 21.
I’m not asking you to become vegan or celebrate Yom Kippur, but I beg you to challenge your beliefs and question your existence. It’s the only way to unravel the many shades within you.