Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Sneaky Guise of Selflessness: Part 2

At the risk of beating this particular tired, nearly worn-out horse past the point of usefulness, I have a couple more thoughts to add. One was a moment of self-understanding (that may border on self-justification) about my desire to blog what I feel like blogging without having to worry much about whether I'm being helpful to others.

"Ahhh, yes," I thought in a flash of recollection. "Writing sermons all those years (22, to be more precise), I was altogether focused on what would be helpful, elucidating, enlightening, encouraging, or challenging in a positive way. No wonder I not only find it hard to allow myself to do otherwise but also have a burning desire to follow a different (i.e., self-determined) path of inspiration!"

I suppose this bit of awareness should have been obvious to me--I'm sure it has been clear at various times. It's just one of those slippery fish that easily wriggles free of my grasp. I have put in my dues in an other-focused profession. Even if the stuff I wrote was drawn from within myself and the quirkiness of my own creative process, the writing and speaking of all those sermons took place within externally determined boundaries and a fairly set liturgical framework, for a clear purpose that had little to do with free personal expression.

Preaching is an an art form, for sure, but one in which the goal of the particular religious inclination can clash mightily with the hungers and longings of an individual creative person. My soul has borne the brunt of that clashing of agendas, goals, longings.

"But you can exercise your creativity in your sermons," people used to say.

"Yes, but..." I used to try to respond. Often as not, I would give up trying to articulate the struggle, the intensely felt clash of forces, because no matter how I tried to frame it, my desires for true creative freedom to express myself however I chose (meaning, in whatever medium or language I chose and on whatever topic I felt moved to speak) always sounded

How can the fires of individual self-expression ever come off sounding as morally or religiously legitimate as the ideals of serving others? Especially from within an institution whose stated goals and norms are the service of others in the name of and in the spirit of Jesus?

I remember a poet leading a poetry workshop I attended while still in seminary, who took a rare (among the rather bohemian poetry world of that workshop) positive view of my religious affiliation. He suggested I read one or two poets who wrote what he thought of as "religious poetry," even if not overtly religious poetry.

I'm not sure I could have said so very clearly at the time, but I think I knew even then that I didn't want to write "religious poetry!" Over the years my poems, when I wrote them at all, were a means (or at least kept alive a hope for such a means) of keeping alive some other voice within me, a wilder, truer, sometimes even a deliberately irreverent or skeptical voice, a voice outside the boundaries of the church.

And my pursuit of other art forms over the years sprang from a similar motivation. My forays into drawing, painting, knitting, dyeing yarns, weaving...

"Oh, wonderful!" at least one parishioner said after I had learned weaving during one of our sabbatical breaks, "you can weave new altar hangings for the altar!"

I remember how suddenly and totally my heart sank when I heard those words (and the moment was at least seven years ago). And I remember how a fiery, feisty energy had risen up almost as suddenly, ready to defend my creative pursuits as my own, to mark off a place where my own quirky, peculiar, authentic to myself as possible self-expression would be guarded from that seemingly insatiable hunger of the church to own it all, to own all of me, and for parishioners to want to claim my creativity for themselves.

As you can imagine, there's still more to tell of this story. But right now I'm off to deliver some paintings to the church where that very same exchange happened seven years ago. For the second year in a row, I will step into that building (that I still love very much), not as a priest but as a painter. Somehow I think I would do well to repeat that last sentence to myself many times over, and to savor it.

And then to keep telling about the "sneaky guise of selflessness", and especially about the time when I finally saw it for what it was and dared to choose a different path.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sneaky Guise of Selflessness: Part 1

This post is really a sequel to yesterday's about "Waiting for Permission". It's where the permission issue hooks up with the selfish vs. selfless (or at least altruistic) issue. What do I mean by the selfish vs. selfless/altruistic issue? You know the one, I'm sure.

Usually the things we wait for permission to do are viewed by some super-ego part of ourselves as "selfish," self-centered, for ourselves and our pleasure alone.

"What good can this possibly do for others?" we might ask. Artistic, creative, and self-expressive endeavors seem particularly vulnerable to such accusations.

Of course there are numerous leaps of false assumptions and false thinking that take place in our minds along this path, and sadly, our particular culture's bias toward the pragmatic and away from the aesthetic and creative is of no help at all.

And since most of us, and especially most of us who are women and girls, are encoded--perhaps hormonally, and certainly culturally--toward serving others, being praised and feeling rewarded for doing for others rather than for ourselves, to choose to do something that appears to be primarily for one's own pleasure or simply because it's who you are is difficult. More than difficult. Terrifying even. I have been stopped in my tracks more times than I care to count.

Enter then what I call "the sneaky guise of selflessness." Under the cover of darkness (in this case, the darkness of your own lack of self-awareness, your disconnection from your self) your own personal dream or desire finds a guise of selflessness. You find a way, in other words, to offer up your personal "calling" toward particular creative endeavor as something for a whole bunch of people! You get to do it because you find a way to do it for others; thus, it's no longer selfish of you!

And believe me, life hands you countless opportunities for doing so. (Being in a helping profession ensures that you will have an endless supply of opportunities to bite the bait. My years as an Episcopal priest in parish ministry are riddled with examples. I could get very specific about some of them, and how I came to recognize what I was doing--another day, another post.)

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that there's something dishonest or distorted about all altruistic activities, nor about all creative endeavors offered to others. Not all of them are really your own private yearnings in distorted disguise. Sometimes you really do want to teach others how to paint or draw or write or sing. Sometimes it really is a part of your calling to lead groups or to share your own knowledge and love of a particular field or craft with other people. And thankfully some people really are called to the visibly altruistic professions--to be healers, nurses, doctors, teachers, librarians, you-name-its! It's what makes their hearts sing (at least some of the time). Thank God!

That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about something much more insidious, precisely because it happens beneath your own radar. And after it happens enough, it becomes a rock solid habit that is both hard to notice and hard to break.

It has even been a part of my struggle around blogging! Is it really and truly OK for me to blog what I feel like blogging, to spend a little time at the keyboard putting my thoughts out there for others to read, simply because I enjoy the process of doing so? To choose whatever topic seems to want to be written on a given day, or whatever words or ideas I seem to want to play around with, without regard for whether it might do anyone out there in cyberspace any good at all? (Ah, there's the rub!)

Could it be enough simply to tell a story because it's a story that I feel called to tell, driven at times to tell, partly because when I scratch deep enough down I discover that part of who I am, part of my DNA, is a writer and teller of stories?

More times than I wish to relate or you probably wish to read, I've steered away from an expression of simple joy or a quirky observation in my blog in favor of something that might actually, if I'm lucky and say it honestly and well, help someone else. Who's to say that the expression of simple joy or the quirky observation wouldn't have been just as "helpful" as my attempt at wisdom?

I even had a small tussle with a reader of one of my blogs early on (one since abandoned), a reader who really didn't like even the slightest hint that I was going to write what I felt like writing and wasn't all that concerned about what she and other readers might want me to write about. I held my ground, but it really got under my skin. I fretted and worried for days that I was a hopelessly self-centered and self-serving blogger. (Maybe I am! And if so, well, so be it. Might as well stop pretending.)

Suddenly I'm aware of what a huge topic this is. And how much I could say about it, how many stories I could tell. Let's just say, there's more to come, and call it a day.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Waiting for Permission

Remember how in grade school (maybe even in high school?) if you needed to go to the bathroom you had to raise your hand and ask permission from the teacher? And of course you had to ask your parents for permission to do things you wanted to do if they required money or a ride or you just plain knew they were a little too big to do without asking.

Such as when I took a semester off from college after the fall of my sophomore year (that was the first really big permission thing--I remember what my dad said: that if I was as unhappy in school as I said I was, then perhaps I'd be wasting my time and his money to stay, so his answer was "yes").

And then I tried to find a job somewhere away from home for that semester, and I was interested either in doing some kind of service-oriented work (like a short-term Peace Corps kind of thing) or working on a boat in the Virgin Islands (like a short-term totally NOT Peace Corps kind of thing).

And when I received by mail--it was all done by mail in those days! How slow!--a rather vague job offer from the male captain/owner of a yacht who took paying passengers for week-long vacations, my dad said, "No way are you going to the docks on St. Thomas to meet some strange man who may or may not actually offer you an honorable job." I think I was secretly relieved to have that permission denied.

In any case, I've been aware these days of how often I still act as if I am waiting for someone other than me to give me permission--to try out an idea, to paint a certain way, to spend a whole day painting rather than doing something else, or to ignore all the rules and suggestions for successful blogging and just blog what I feel like blogging.

And do you know what happens when I wait for someone else, some mysteriously unidentified other, or else some poor innocent who happens to cross my path, to give me permission? (And not only do I wait but I don't even ask, because of course to ask for permission for such things at age 56 is nigh to ridiculous!)

What happens is that I notice other people who appear to have their acts together enough simply to do what they want or think best without waiting for permission from someone else, probably because they give themselves permission without even having to think about it!

And when one of those self-permitted people happens to do something I'm still waiting for the aforementioned vague permission to do, boy, does that trigger me! I might feel betrayed (how could you steal my idea?), or like a victim (you didn't tell me you were going to do that!). And on an even deeper level there's a part of me screaming, "NO! Wait! That's what I want to do!"

I get to see things more clearly--about myself and how I operate; and even more important, about what there really is within me that wants to be expressed, created, honored and acted. And of course to be given my fully self-authorized permission to do just that.

P.S. Thanks, Beth, for nudging me yesterday by saying you'd noticed I hadn't been blogging much of late.