I have a problem. It’s more of an addiction, really - to accomplish things. Maybe you can relate. I am a to-do lists person, obsessed with finishing tasks. There’s some kind of gnawing hunger inside that won’t let me move on to rest or play until I’ve finished the work. And it’s more than just a cultural motto “work before play,” it’s a compulsion that drives me from an unhealthy place. Underneath, this hunger is breathing a lie that says I am measured and valued by what I produce. So in an effort to be loved, I rack up as many achievements as possible to show the world that I have worth.
I’m told this is the false self – the part of us that clings to what is not really us, but reflections, refractions of what we desperately want others to believe about who we are. We develop these early on in life. When we start to receive affirmations for getting a good grade, for example, we mistake this for love and believe that this is what makes us loveable. We start believing a lie - I am loved based on what I accomplish and how well I perform, so therefore in order to keep this love and keep affirmations coming, I must continue to achieve. This lie, if repeated and reinforced can shape our identity and our futures.
But the ironic thing about the false self is that the more I try to satisfy it, the hungrier it gets. And as I obsess with feeding this bottomless pit, I end up becoming the opposite of who I want to be. The more I strive to become “enough” or “valuable” in the eyes of others through what I achieve - the more ugly I become – more controlling, more ruthless, and less human. The more I try to become “a somebody,” I become somebody less.
This is tragic and depressing. Way to start off a blog post, right? But there is good news, I promise. This isn’t the end of the story. Enmeshed in my DNA right alongside the drive to accomplish tasks (which I believe is God-given, but often distorted), God built in a safeguard called creativity. I believe that God gave me creative gifts to rescue me.
Creativity, of all things has been one way God has worked redemption out of my story and what He has used to save me from myself. How does this happen? Well, you’ve heard the phrase “Whatever you feed will grow?” That’s how. I believe my true self is found most naturally in the creative process. When I immerse myself in creating, it starves the false self because in order to create, I must to do or become the exact opposite of what the false self wants. And as I starve it, the false self dies and the true self emerges. Here’s how this happens through the creative process:
The false self wants polished and presentable. Creativity flourishes in the mess. Painting is the only part of my life where I have to become a full on mess in order to go anywhere. You can probably even measure the level of freedom I have when painting by the trail of spills and smudges I leave in my environment (or on myself). Seriously, just ask my husband or my previous art professors.
In the painting process I have to unlearn what is “acceptable” behavior by human standards and become something different entirely – no longer acceptable, but honest and unfiltered. And this can scare people sometimes. When I was in seminary, I was commissioned to do a painting for the seminary building. While I was in class as a student, I would wear business casual clothes, make-up, and I straightened my hair. I also wore a lot of black those days. Driven by my need to prove myself as a woman in ministry, I dressed to fit the part – but that’s another story.
When I started working on the painting for the seminary in the house next door; however, I wore a t-shirt full of paint splotches, ripped jeans, and didn’t bother with makeup. My hair was thrown up into a messy ponytail, smudges of paint were smeared on my face and any remaining bare skin. I traipsed around the house in sneakers, often tracking paint around with me wherever I went. Tidiness just became a creative hindrance to me, and so I allowed myself to fully let go.
At one point during painting, one of my professors came to visit to see what I was working on. I remember the look of shock on his face when he saw me. “What are you wearing?” He asked, “You have paint all over! Do you just wipe your brushes off on your clothes?”
“Sometimes,” I replied, “If it’s convenient.”
I was sort of taken a back by his remarks. Had he never seen an artist at work before? Of course you get paint everywhere! But I suppose I must have looked dramatically different from the pressed and stiff 20 something in black sitting upright and trying desperately to fit in. But that was just the thing – painting wasn’t about fitting in. If anything, I had to unyoke myself from the pressure to be someone else and had to become fully myself in order to say what the piece needed to say.
Isn’t that just how it goes? In order for God to say what He wants to say through us, it requires us to let go of trying to be perfect and expose the mess – to ourselves, to others, and most importantly, to God. But it is through this process of illuminating what is broken, disheveled, or chaotic that we can then make sense of who we are and something beautiful can be made through us. We open ourselves up to the process of being loved for the mess and transformed in the thick of it.
“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” – Eph 5:13
When I am in the act of creating - I have to unlearn how to perform and perfect. I have to let go of looking pretty and instead relish in the beauty of what is being created through me. Over time, I’ve found that I can’t really paint any other way – and we probably aren’t meant to really live any other way either.
What about you? What causes your false self to starve so you can become more you?