Tag Archives: courage

Good and Bad

I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.

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The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.

Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion and see what happens, so here goes.

“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.

Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.

Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”

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Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.

It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even a majority opinion, is not a universal law.

Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.

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Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.

This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader, concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define their artistic expression as well done?

As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.

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As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.

Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad” strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill alone.

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Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.

What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.

In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.

Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?

I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.

To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.

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I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?

I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.

Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

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Recognizing Opportunity

Like so many clichés, “Oh, no, not another ‘growth’ opportunity!” is obnoxious, in large part because it’s true.

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Opportunity, or a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something (Oxford Online Dictionary), does not guarantee a positive outcome, and is most definitely a gift with strings attached.

I would go so far as to say the greatest opportunities are likely to be hidden under paralyzing layers of fear, dread, and pain.

Opportunity demands responsibility. No wonder we so often avoid it! It takes a determined effort to excavate opportunity, an effort requiring time, honesty, and dealing with our emotions, defenses, habits and denial.

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Thomas Edison

Hence, the cliché. Growth is frequently uncomfortable and expensive.

I suspect every one of us has a secret list in our heads of events and possibilities we simply cannot face. Usually, we feel that way because we’ve already lived through them and they were so traumatic we’re determined to never go there again. In essence, we’re afraid of ghosts. We think we’ll die if we have to face another loss, another attack, another rejection or another battle, forgetting that we’ve obviously survived the first time(s), and thus are older and wiser.

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What to do when we fear we’ll have to revisit some traumatic setting or situation? Freeze? Fight? Flee?

Probably all of those, in one form or another. Yet there is another choice. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s an option.

Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.

Setting aside for a moment our history, our memories, our stories and scripts about what did happen and what will surely happen again, setting aside our fear, rage and pain, wiping the blood out of our eyes, taking a deep breath and searching for opportunity is the work of heroes. Such a choice feeds our power, rather than diminishing it.

If we can catch even a glimpse, a whisper, a rumor of opportunity, the next step is to identify what we might do with the circumstances we dread most. What is that dread about? What has not healed?

What, in fact, do we need, and how do we turn the circumstances we most fear and wish to avoid into an opportunity for hope, healing, closure, forgiveness, letting go, or whatever it is we need to do?

Now, there’s a mighty question.

Some things in life are inevitable. We can kick and scream, deny and avoid, distract and pretend, but we know some things are inevitable. I’d rather figure out how to think about inevitabilities before they occur. I can’t think when I’m shaking with dread. Dread is a dead end. It fills my mind with a dull roar, it overwhelms my senses, and it hangs out with despair, depression, powerlessness, futility and a lot of other bad actors I don’t want to have anything to do with.

Dread makes me want to run like a panicked rabbit. Opportunity embraces me like a mother.

It is possible to insist our emotions, like fear and dread, sit quietly on a bench (with beer, bubble gum and baseball cards to keep them occupied) while we interview Opportunity. It takes some practice and self-discipline, but we can succeed in feeling our feelings and setting overwhelming emotion to the side unless we’re being actively hurt in real time.

Here are some interview questions for Opportunity:

  • Where is my power?
  • What do I need to do to take care of myself?
  • How can I engage with opportunity flexibly?
  • What gives me courage?
  • What must I overcome in order to take advantage of opportunity?
  • What mystery lies at the heart of a dreaded situation?
  • How would things change if I engaged with opportunity?
  • What are my goals and intentions?
  • What role will I play?
  • What boundaries do I need to maintain?
  • How do I define success in the context of the situation?
  • Who might serve as support, guide, mentor and friend?
  • What is there for me to learn?
  • What tools, skills and insights will help me?

“Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity. From discord find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Albert Einstein

Considering opportunity. My daily crime.

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A Recipe For Courage

I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.

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Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.

Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.

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Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?

Perhaps.

So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?

Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.

Journal Note Long Ago

Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody
who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man
or woman who is afraid.

I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts
enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must
not ask others to go.

I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon
whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough
to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.

The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.

This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.

My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.

When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.

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Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit—all these inspire me and give me courage.

My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.

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And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.

A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.

Courage.

My daily crime.

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