I recently spent time with a group of artists. During the course of several conversations, I observed one of the artists, a very good writer and close friend of mine, consistently refer to himself as "not an artist" like the other artists in the room.
At face value, I understood what he was saying. He was saying he wasn't a filmmaker. Or a visual artist. Or a graphic designer. Or an installation artist. We all got it. What bothered me at a much deeper level was the self-sabotaging flowing from his lips and the lack of awareness from where his words came from...his heart.
My friend was defining himself in relationship to others by stating who or what he was not. Not only was he comparing himself and his creative work to those around him, he was also casting judgment on himself and those around him by creating a false impression that they just might be judging him based upon what kind of artist he was, is or perhaps should be.
A few days later, my friend commented over coffee (in so many words) that he hoped his presence wasn't a distraction to the group because (in so many words) he was 'just a writer."
Voila, it was all I needed to jump all over that. Understand, this buddy of mine is a very close friend. I had been planning on speaking with him about his "definition of self" anyway, so I went for it.
"Actually, how you kept referring to yourself was distracting. When we were together, everyone was enjoying your presence for you being just 'you', but you kept sabotaging yourself and the conversation by defining yourself by who you are not as if everyone expected you to be something else.
My buddy was like, "Wow."
I went on to explain that he was like a skipping record stuck in the same groove. "I'm not an artist... I'm not an artist ... I'm not an artist..." Now, do I really care if my friend refers to himself as an artist or not (so it makes me feel better that he really embraces his creativity)? Does it really matter if a writer defines himself or herself as an "artist"? When the average person thinks of an artist, they're probably thinking of a visual artist or perhaps, a musical artist. So no, a writer can simply say, "I'm a writer" and leave it at that. You get it. Words mean something, but semantics only go so far.
But, if the definition of you begins with who you are not, you just might be starting with the cup half empty and I would venture a guess that that cup has a leaking hole in the bottom... your heart.
I know my buddy's story and it begins at a very early age with abuse and trauma. Oh, and he was born into a family of "artists." So when he essentially says, "Hell no, I'm not an artist," there's a lot of energy in his words. Who would want to be THAT KIND of artist?
And so we're left with our adult years trying to figure out how to define ourselves within the context of who we really are, the creative work we're called to and how to flesh out this messy, ugly stuff in community with those around us. By his own admission, my friend is thankful to be growing in a deeper sense of his creative gifts and the gifts of other artists around him. His prejudice against certain kinds of artists and how he defines himself in relationship to them is being healed as he opens himself to a safe, loving community who simply loves him for who he is.
We all leak. On our best days, our best definition of self is simply resting in being a beloved son or daughter of God.
On our worst day, we're not "that kind of artist." Or we're not one of those 'Christian' artists out of fear that our work might be exposed as schlocky, sentimental-n-syrupy religious goo. Or we're a terrible artist. Or we wish we were a more successful artist. A respected artist. A full-time artist. When our narcissism is in full-bloom, our inner vision of being a dynamic, innovative, and brilliant artist loved by the critics and whose inner critic has long been silenced; locked away in the dingy basement of our fears of failure, rejection, and being unloved. At this point, we're simply a caricature and we've lost our humanity; that strange mixture of good and bad, weakness and strength, health and heartache, laughter and personality, gifts and grief.
The definition of you doesn't begin with you. You really discover who you are by being in relationship with others because soon or later, your words will be life-giving by affirming who you are. Or, you words will betray you by leaking out when you start to define yourself by who you are not.
Spiritual transformation begins with letting down the cast-iron drawbridge of our defenses and judgments against ourselves and others with the words, "This is my son...this is my daughter, whom I love; in whom I'm well-pleased." (Matthew 4:17)
The definition of you doesn't begin with your voice or your words. It begins with another Voice.
That voice of love, that definition of you, just may start a whole new conversation inside.
Question: What is one challenge you've faced with how you define yourself?
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