April 5, 2017 – Ain’t mishavin’
Brené Brown (no relation) is one of the heroines of my inner journey. Several years ago I watched her first two TEDs talks on vulnerability and shame and knew she was the real deal. I’ve read a couple of her books and have felt enormously supported by what she has to say. She’s since been on Oprah (two shows in a row at the start, because Oprah wanted more after the first one!) and she has become quite well known in the world. What she teaches is an antidote to much of the causes of inter-personal harm in our culture – as it helps people live whole-hearted lives. The perfectionist streak in me is tenacious and Brené Brown’s discoveries and teachings encourage me to lighten up on myself. Her latest book: “Rising Strong” has been waiting for me in my audio book library for a while. Last Saturday, after an unhappy exchange in the morning with my hubby, was the time to start listening to it. So, as I was working on finishing this painting above of apple blossoms and bees mixing the soft pastels of cobalt teal blue, quinacridone rose and hansa yellow medium, I heard her tell me about picking ourselves up after an emotional fall – and becoming stronger in the process.
One of the questions that she explores at length is: In any given moment, are people doing the best they can? It seems there are two pretty distinct camps. Those of us who tend to be hardest on ourselves, tend to be hard on others as well – and believe that people are absolutely not doing their best. Then there are those of us who see that everyone has their own story, their own capacities, injuries and experiences and that in any given situation, if they could do better they would. Though I continue at times to be pretty hard on myself, and to pass judgement on others – I sure was on my sweetheart on Saturday morning, I can easily find my way to the other camp. I see the wisdom – and the miracle of human interaction – that comes from giving someone the benefit of the doubt and not reacting as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them.
It’s funny how ideas tend to constellate and recur. This is a message I’ve heard in different forms before – some quite recently. I first heard it from Alison Armstrong. When she began her studies of how men and women interact, she asked herself these questions: What if nobody is misbehaving? And: What if there is a good reason for what they are doing? These two “what if’s” alone can be life-changing. Then just last week I was listening to a Krista Tippett conversation with Pádraig Ó Tuama who she describes as a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in Northern Ireland. Towards the end of their talk she quoted him as saying “most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time – most of the time.” She followed: “the people who may be so offending us and may seem frightening to us are actually doing what seems reasonable to them.” And there are certainly others in the world who might need to make room for me – when what I’m doing isn’t reasonable to them.
It’s a challenging idea. Brené Brown said that she calls herself the most likely person to be asked the question “even serial killers and terrorists?” Yes, even those who commit heinous acts are doing their best/doing what seems most reasonable to them/are not – in their minds misbehaving. This does not condone what they do, it does not mean that we don’t respond and protect others from them. But what it does is re-install their humanity. Though we may have the tendency to want to test the idea in these extreme cases, where it really can have impact is when we apply it to those closest to us.
I often read and listen to wisdom like this and think about all the people I love who I want to share it with – in order to bring greater peace and happiness to them. I’m so oriented towards those around me that I have to remind myself to consider it for myself – and to actually look inward first. Because, I can only offer the generosity of this perspective towards those around me if I’ve allowed that I’m doing my best too. It has become my tender desire – and intention to be as gentle with myself (beyond a wholesome discipline, says Desiderata). I am doing the best I can in any given moment.
From the stand point of the “other side” one could say that this is a slippery slope. You might protest by saying that we must be held accountable when we are not measuring up. Yes. We should. But the problem comes when the accountability-holding is cloaked in judgement and criticism (“you should have known better!”). When the response lacks any acknowledgment of our shared humanity, of our intention and our desire to do well, it shuts us down. Hard-liners don’t acknowledge that what we all want is to be heard, to contribute and to matter.
As a later-in-life teacher/guide to those who are discovering who they are as artists, I see how critical this idea is in the world of expressive and creative arts. I’ve heard many, many stories of those whose teachers did not come from the “doing the best we can” camp – who squashed spirits in response to tender sprouts of early art work. I have a few stories of my own – this is why after childhood it took until my 30’s to be brave enough to try my hand again at making art.
It’s the most important thing I do in the groups I lead – I create the container – a safe container – for the art to emerge from the artists. We are so vulnerable when we allow others to see the art we make – especially when we are first starting. I have had several people express interest in joining us, but feeling tentative about it because of the skill and capacities of the other artists in our group. It is hard – to imagine walking in with little experience or confidence, surrounded by these artists and their artwork. But every single one of us started one day and has a series of paintings that reveal the progression of our abilities. And, on top of that, if a new artist could hear the thoughts inside our heads as we paint – they’d realize that regardless of how the world gives accolades for what we are painting, we are often so lacking the inner-confidence one would imagine we’d have!
Life isn’t forever. We all will one day become incapacitated and die – and will no longer be able to pick up a brush and put color onto paper. So, as long as we bring a desire to express ourselves genuinely, what we do is precious. There is a note of grace in every impulse, every color choice, every dab of our brushes. We are doing our best in every minute. The miracle comes as we pay attention to the result we got and make adjustments for the next one. We learn and get better. It’s really that simple. It is my prayer to have the presence of mind hold this perspective as much as I possibly can. And when I can’t, to notice and adjust and grow.
With my love,