Tag Archives: make yourself small

Terra Incognita

My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.

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This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.

In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!

We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.

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Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn—also called resilience–as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.

One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean that we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean that we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem-solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.

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The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?

It boggles my mind to imagine that some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?

The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t—or won’t—play with me.  It’s hard to feel that my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.

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The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.

Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.

My daily crime.

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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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Measuring Health

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Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

I first heard that quote five years ago. It gave me comfort, because it allowed the possibility that my feeling of isolation and alienation at the time was a normal response. The problem, I find, with taking too much responsibility is that one stops excavating interpersonal challenges. Instead, we assume it’s all our fault because we know we’re broken. This attitude effectively blocks further inquiry into what the people around us are up to. If we can be taught or manipulated into believing we’re the core of the problem in social interaction, our shame and guilt give those around us a free pass to behave however they like and treat us however they wish. No matter what happens, they can count on us to blame ourselves.

A friend of mine recently pointed out a lot of social media buzz about normalizing obesity. As I am not on social media, I did some research into memes and articles about this issue, and everything I saw made me think of the Krishnamurti quote.

Here again I see sloppy language. Almost every source agrees that carrying too much weight on our frame is unhealthy. Unhealthy, as in bad for one’s health. Not ugly, stupid, lazy, lacking self-control, or a whole host of other slurs, taunts and unkind criticisms that many overweight people have endured their whole lives.

Obesity is unhealthy. The fact that we have so many people struggling with obesity in this country doesn’t change unhealthy to healthy because it’s so common. A growing population of obese people signals a profoundly unhealthy society. Normal, as in usual, typical or expected, does not imply useful, healthy, functional or positive.

Is normal a goal, or is it merely a cop-out? Is normal something we aspire to because it makes us bigger, or is it something we have to make ourselves smaller in order to fit into? Who gets to decide what is usual, typical or expected? What are the consequences of choosing not to be usual, typical or expected?

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I can answer that one. Consequences include tribal shaming, deplatforming, silencing and other violent, destructive and coercive responses.

Normal is one of those words that we define ourselves. Normal describes something that’s not aberrant or abnormal. Abnormal is the absence of normal. That distinction can be useful, but in a limited way. Conflating normality with Good and abnormality or different with Bad (or vice versa) is mindless, black-and-white groupthink, the kind of ideology that drives genocide, religious persecution and racism.

Our culture and context help us define normal, but if our society is profoundly sick, to be well-adjusted and “normal” within it is to be profoundly sick.

This is particularly true when I look at money. I’m noticing an ever-widening gap between money and value in my own life and in the lives around me. Until recently, I thought of all resource as money, and a life without some magical amount of money that I never defined and could never access would be a safe, successful life.

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But money is only one kind of resource, and for me it’s the weakest kind. This thinking is definitely not normal by our cultural standards, but I believe it’s becoming more common. Minimalism is a growing trend, and those of us who explore and practice it are very clear about the relative value of money, time, contribution, experience, relationships, creativity, relaxation and joy. If earning money burns up all our other resources, we can’t replace them. Money won’t buy them back for us. A tree, an afternoon in the sun, a lap full of a child, the arms of a friend, the ability to lend someone a helping hand, are all beyond the power of money.

I don’t say that money is bad or useless. I am dismayed, however, at what a God we’ve made out of it in this culture. During my lifetime the middle class has disappeared and the chasm between those very few who have significant financial resource and the billions of us who don’t seems likely to tear the planet apart.

A lot of sad people out there think money is power. It’s not. Our power is in our intelligence, our hearts, and our souls, not in our bank accounts. We have to make ourselves increasingly small and, ironically, impoverished, in order to adjust well to our deteriorating and unsustainable capitalist consumer culture.

In this house, we’re frequently in need of money to pay bills, buy groceries, keep up with car costs, buy a new pair of swim goggles, and buy a new fan for the furnace (our old one is beginning to sound like an airplane falling out of the sky when it kicks on). Most of the time, we don’t have money when we want it, but we manage to have what we need when it’s essential.

I used to feel terrified, ashamed, and like a failure because of my lack of financial resource. My relationship with money ruled my life. My hunger for more was never satisfied. When I had more I caught up with all my expenses and then I was broke again. It was a game I could never win.

I see now it’s a game no one ever wins, yet we all go on compulsively playing it, chasing the lie that enough money will provide us with love, success, healing, healthy relationships, confidence, power, and a sense of purpose and meaning. We’re so busy playing the game we have no time to recognize or welcome into our lives the things that do have the power to give us what we want.

Ultimately, accumulating money for its own sake is an expression of impotence. What’s more sterile and pointless than a lot of digits sitting in an account? The tool of money is useless unless we put it to work. If (when) the economy crashes, a piece of paper with our account information on it will be of less use than toilet paper.

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What will matter is our ability to form loving, compassionate connections with others and our willingness to collaborate sustainably with Planet Earth. Our ability to both teach and learn will be important. Our skills and integrity will be important. Our laughter and creativity will be essential. If we can translate whatever financial resource we have into these things, we’ve made good use of our money. We’ve invested in sustainability and resilience, real resource for real life.

Frequent readers know how much I enjoy playing with frames. If we feel rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and crazy, perhaps the problem is not us at all. Perhaps the problem is that we’re trying to fit into a profoundly sick society, and the fact that we can’t means we’re retaining some measure of health, even in the face of tremendous social pressure.

Those rebellious, noncompliant, alienated and I-feel-crazy ones are the people I’m writing for. Those are my people. Their courage, compassion and generosity are the wind beneath my wings. Our shared truths, tears, scars, love and broken places shape a womb where a healthier life for all can be nurtured.

Money has nothing to do with it.

My daily crime.

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