My fear-full self


I’ve written before  about  the fear of creating and have been thinking about this more recently after several conversations with artists. They have spoken about how the fear of creating is a fear for our identity.

So, if I call myself an artist and this feels a part of my identity, a label that helps me to understand who I am, then  when I attempt a painting that fails miserably my sense of self is threatened. This is another aspect of the fear of the blank canvas and can lead to endless procrastination when commencing on a project. Much easier to do nothing and feel secure in who I am than attempt something that may challenge those assumptions.

The corollary is also true. I have no fear in attempting and failing those things that are not, to my mind, part of my identity. I remember playing squash in my mid 20’s with a man in his 50’s who had just undergone a knee replacement operation. He ended up beating me soundly. He stood in the centre of the court thrashing the ball all over whilst I ran backwards and forwards trying to keep up. As I collapsed on the floor gasping for air at the end of the match he picked up his walking stick and limped off.

I have no problem or embarrassment in telling the story because being good at sport is not at all part of who I feel myself to be. In fact I take a perverse pride in not being very proficient at it. There are so many other things, however, that I would not even attempt if I didn’t believe I would excel because failure would challenge my sense of self.

But this self is not me. The true I is deeper than that. This I is not good or bad at sport, this I is not a talented or a terrible artist. This I is not afraid of success or failure and doesn’t cling to labels for security because it is not defined by such paltry things.

“All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.  Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.  And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface”

 (Thomas Merton: New seeds of contemplation )

Marooned on the shiny surfaces of the banal

I’ve just started reading John O’Donohue’s book on Celtic spirituality ‘Anam Cara’ and this quote cut me to the heart:

‘…true vitality is hidden within longing. When you give in to creative passion, it will bring you to the ultimate thresholds of transfiguration and renewal. This growth causes pain but it is a sacred pain. It would be much more tragic to have cautiously avoided these depths and remained marooned on the shiny surfaces of the banal.’ (pg 45)

God save us from the shiny surfaces of the banal, from the mediocrity that leaches life from our being. There is always a voice to say ‘you can’t do that because…’ when confronted with the longing to live with extravagant and creative possibility. Maybe the voices of those around us worried about who we might offend or whether what we seek to do is really practical, or the probability of our plans failing miserably  (as if success or failure really mattered anyway) . Or it’s the voice of our own internal censor echoing these concerns, worried about what people might think of us if we really followed that first impulse of spontaneous, self giving love.

I remember standing on a Croatian cliff top near Dubrovnik. The deep clear waters shifted below and I hesitated for a very long time before stepping out and plummeting far far down through air and water. I was stunned at how long it took to fall and how deep I plunged. It was at once foolish and exhilarating, I felt fully alive.

So often, all our instincts and everyone around us, sensibly explain why we should stick with the shiny surfaces of the banal. But this year, every time I find myself on a cliff top, I’m going to jump.