The Choices That Make Us

hand-1515895_1920In creating – anything- we have choices. We have choices in the medium we chose to work in and the materials we chose to work on. We have choices of color, contrast, mode, form, texture or type. Creating something always involves making choices. As we get older and try and fail and try and fail and try and fail we get an idea of how to make better choices for achieving the ends we desire.

This is part of the maturity process, and is reflected in the wisdom we gain experience through living life.

In building a creative lifestyle, we also make choices and often times it is a matter of which priority will actually take priority at any given moment.  In this moment, will I do the responsible thing by faithfully recording my financial expenses or will I continually duck this responsibility until tax season when I need to know what write offs I can take? Hmmm… still not sure about that one?

I know. Nothing about taxes seems creative, right? But not maintaining them can seriously hamper those acts of pure creation. For me, when I spend too much time in the minutae of living – i.e. – taking care of finances, I get bogged down and bummed out. Depression sets in because the harkening for expression has not been answerable for days or weeks on end. I’ve been dealing with piled on responsibilities. Thus, I’ve found it’s better to take the five or ten minutes at a time to take care of the numbers one little receipt (or two or three,) as opposed to letting those receipts pile up for a year until working my way through it feels as daunting as scaling Mt. Kilamanjaro.

The point is that in the same way we have choices in the things we create, our choices dictate the life we create. In this, I may be stating the obvious, but what is not so obvious is how to ensure the choices we make actually create the life we want. In truth, we only have so much control over this, and often it is less control than we realize.

Consider that stack of unread books. We all have them, either stored neatly on a shelf – or- in my case, stuffed every which way possible to maximize storage space. As of this moment, the majority of those books are unread. Over half of them are *not* fiction books. These were bought with the best of intentions – to expand my practical or spiritual knowledge, grow in enlightenment, develop a new skill, become a generally all-around more useful human being.

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And yet… all they’ve done is become a breeding ground for dust bunnies. *Sigh* I know I am not alone in this, but I feel obligated to examine the decisions I’ve made which resulted in me being the proud owner of a dust-bunny farm rather than a cultivated mind.

I’ve discovered there is a difference between liking the idea of doing something and actually doing it. I like the idea of knowing more about 17th century French poetry. I am not keen on the idea of learning French in order to do so. For this reason, I’ve begun to see the purchase of books as a form of commitment. Am I willing to commit the time it takes to read, understand and apply what this book has to present to me? Very very rarely, I’m finding, is the answer yes. On those occasions where the answer is yes, I’ve found myself returning to those tomes time and time again.

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The nice thing about choices is that, for the most part, they can be reversed. Very few choices are of such a hard and fast nature that they can’t be reconsidered and our efforts refocused into a direction which is more in line with what we would like our life experience to be. Often, decisions are made based on what things might look like, especially to others, but I think a better criteria is “What experience will this create?” Simillarly, a good question is “What experience will this allow for or support?”  A life that looks chaotic, but feels peaceful is much preferred over the one that looks peaceful, but is actually chaotic. Even better is the life that both looks and is peaceful. In pursing a creative life-style – i.e. a lifestyle that supports personal expression as a reflection of the God who is Creator – it is important to remember that our choices, especially the small and meaningless choices we make everyday are the equivalent of the singular penstrokes that culminate in a deeply moving, highly detailed portraiture and our lives become a work of art.

Why You Can’t Forgive Yourself

picture-1751220_1280“You have to forgive yourself.” Every time some version of this raises its’ false, misleading and ugly head in popular media, I roll my eyes and sigh. This advice, usually from one well-meaning character to another, is literally impossible for human kind to do. It’s offered as a platitude that is meant to be helpful, but is ultimately harmful. It reveals the speaker (or writer of the characters’ words) has absolutely no idea exactly what forgiveness actually is.

Forgiveness is relinquishing the right to exact just retribution for a wrong suffered. It always involves two parties: the offender and the offended.  “Forgive yourself” implies you are both offender and offended. This is never the case, and I will explain why. Any person who feels they need self-forgiveness is most likely is suffering from a guilty conscience.

shame-927085_1280A guilty conscience is the result of violating the moral code imbued into our soul at creation. That code includes the big things-don’t murder, don’t steal, etc. As we make our way through life, that code goes through refinement, but it always reflects our judgements of our actions towards other people. If we feel guilty, my fellow humans, it is because we have injured (or believe we’ve injured) another person. They don’t even have to know about the injury for us to feel guilty over it.

In situations like this, only the injured party can offer forgiveness. Any “forgiveness” we would offer to ourselves would, at best, be an attempt to justify bad behavior, and, at worse, strangle our conscience. Often ‘forgiving yourself’ ultimately manifests in a strangled conscience so we simply don’t feel bad. Incidentally, not feeling bad about our behavior doesn’t mean we are not guilty of injuring others.

Now, as a matter of reflection on our behavior, it is possible to be disappointed in ourselves. Through the course of our lives, and in our interactions with others, discovering we do not have the bravery, or fortitude, or temperament we believed we did can be discouraging. While this may be humbling- even humiliating, it isn’t an injury to anything but personal pride.

But this disappointment is, in the end, an opportunity. Painful as that disappointment might be, it shows us where we are and gives us the opportunity to be better human beings. It opens up a path of growth for us.

hug-1315545_1280Guilt and forgiveness are complex issues, and more will be written on this top. For now, let’s agree that our guilt should lead us to seek forgiveness from those we’ve actually injured, rather than try to convince ourselves that our bad behavior is really okay. The exception to seeking forgiveness from others would be if doing so added to the injury they suffered. Seeking forgiveness can ultimately lead to better relationships and deeper bonds of respect and affection between all parties uninvolved, so stop trying to forgive yourself and seek the forgiveness that truly matters.

Recent Read: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson

Walk on Earth a Stranger coverWalk on Earth a Stranger does not disappoint.

The novel draws readers into the story of Leah Westfall, and the epic struggle of the pioneers who settled the United States. Though the story is sweeping in scope, it is also intimately personal when experienced through Leah’s eyes. The writer does not attempt to sugar-coat the evils done in the name of progress as the characters make their way across the country. With Leah’s magic ability simplfied, the author had the opportunity to focus more on character development and world building. This resulted in a rich character-driven, immersive story experience.

Some of the character’s attitudes regarding slavery and women, and Native Americans strains credibility, evincing a more modern attitude on these than is believable. The main character would have no trouble fitting into today’s society, despite the vast number of social changes that have occured since the era depicted. To her credit, Rae Carson handles some very sensitive issues with delicacy and subtlety without shying away from the awkwardness of those issues. She paints her characters in complex shades by making them varying degrees of disagreeable and trustworthy. The characters are always interesting, even if they aren’t always likable (including Leah).

It is not a fast-paced, action-filled adventure, and this is a good thing. The trek across the country was a brutal, grueling experience laced with danger and trimmed in death. Readers experience the same exquisitely brutal journey, feeling the windy breezes of the open plains, the sting of rope blistering the hand, the unforgiving heat of the desert sun and the heartbreak of every lost soul.

When things go wrong on this trek, though, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. A lot of the hardships the characters experience happens on the same day. That much bad luck occuring back to back is emotionally draining for a reader, and a little unbelievable. This is, admittedly, a bit of a nit-pick on my part. As a reader, I prefer the conflict and catastrophes to be a little more evenly spread out through the story. Despite this preference, Walk the Earth a Stranger is a novel I can whole-heartedly recommend.

Writing Pedigrees

mentor-4205038_1920You may be asking yourself “what is a writing pedigree?”

It is a reasonable question as pedigree implies a superior genetic history while writing is simply words on the page. On the face of it, they have nothing in common. When referencing a writing pedigree, I am referring to the historical and instructive influences older writers of note have on younger writers of note. The older writer nurtured the younger writer’s skill development, bringing forth their genius. There are direct lines of influence. For example, David Farland (AKA David Wolverton) provided instruction to Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson later provided instructed Brian McClellan. This is a direct chain of influence from one writer to another which took the form of direct mentoring.

This is not the only way a writing pedigree develops. There are indirect influences, as well. J.R.R. Tolkien influenced each of the men above through example and life choices. George MacDonald influenced J.R.R. Tolkien. Some of you may be wondering why this matters. Considering the impact of one person on a life or a career can provide a framework for being intentional in the development of networks, associates, acquaintances, friends and even spouses. In a world where true mentors are rare, observing the mentoring relationship between those of exceptional levels of success can hone social instincts. 

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There is an old adage: If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them? Couched that way, the obvious answer is “No! However, the enjoyment of our friends, the desire for their approval and respect might encourage us to dance closer and closer to that cliff edge. This is the impact our choice of society (i.e. who we keep company with) has on us. It can draw us nearer to or further away from danger. The impact of influence is even greater when it comes to mentor-to-mentee relationships as well as peer-mentor relationships such as that shared between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Observing, knowing, and understanding the nature of an acquaintance between two individuals is important for the insight those observations offer (Note: the point is to understand how each benefits the other, not pass judgement on the association).

mentor-2062999_1920To ensure this point is a clear as I can make it, I will step out of the writing sphere and draw an example from the world of composers. Mozart and Salieri were contemporaries of each other with Mozart being the younger of the two. Salieri has been depicted as being extremely envious of Mozart in plays beginning just six years after his death. Imagine, for a moment, what sort of composer Mozart would have become if Salieri had been his mentor. Perhaps Mozart would have emerged as the composer we know him to be today, but if the depictions of envy are to be believed, there would have been an impact on Mozart’s style, skill, perhaps even his confidence.

Most people are aware that we need to choose our friends, associates, mentors and teachers carefully. I recognize this. What I find lacking is the awareness of how to do this. Observing and studying writing pedigrees gives us the back ground knowledge to make educated decisions in who and how much any one individual is allowed to influence us as writers and as people. This knowledge, then, has applications which extend beyond writing to every facet of our lives. 

 

Just Do It?

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Are you familiar with the Nike tag line “Just Do It?” I’ve been observing for literally decades of my life. Designed to motivate athletic activity, “Just do it” makes for a great tag line for athletic products. Sometimes it’s necessary to set thinking aside and simply get active: walk, run, bike, and hike; do anything, as long as you sweat while doing it. 

Anyone who has an aversion to such activities (eyeing myself here) could have that aversion negated if they “just do it.” Don’t think about it, because you’ll talk yourself out of it. Don’t think about it, because it’s not that complicated. For simple fitness, the advice works. I recognise as a marketing slogan, the tag line isn’g meant to be advice per se. However, it is impossible not to be inundated by such messages without them having an impact on our psyche as human beings and, as a phrase, warrants a little analysis.

“Just do it,” in some contexts could be disastrous. “Just do it” could lead to following vague ideas down dead-end trails, resulting in nothing but wasted time. Just start that business which you have no plan for. Just book that bus trip to destinations unknown. Just click ‘pay now’ when the mood strikes, and you just have to have that darling fuzzy pink sweater with the leopard print trim and purple polka-dots! (And I know you got something like that your closet, so don’t even try to deny it!) Staring at the fruits of buyer’s remorse just leaves people wondering what was I thinking!?!? You weren’t. You just did it.

The point is “Just do it,” in the wrong context, is bad advice. This is true of nearly every manmade motto I’ve ever come across. It is not always easy to know which words rightly apply to which situations. I will provide another example. Consider the phrase “It is okay to ask for help.” I see this often, in many different situations, but particularly in situations that deal with substance abuse and mental illness.

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How does a person know when to ask for help? Sure, there are times when the need for assistance is clear. If the goal is getting a project completed by a deadline, asking for help completing the research for that project seems like a no-brainer. But what if the issue is poor sleep due to bad dreams? How many nights of this should a person suffer before asking for help? How many days should pass before checking in with the boss to say “I haven’t been sleeping well, and I need a little help.”

There is no clear cut answer to this. For some people, that answer will be a resounding “Never” because their boss is just itching to fire them, and poor performance from lack of sleep will give them the excuse they need. For others, this conversation might be appropriate the first day after it happens, because their boss is an angel sent from heaven.  

The point is any advice you receive in life may be good or bad, because its effectiveness is highly dependent upon the situation where it’s applied. Advice, mottos, platitudes, truisms – they aren’t one size fits all. Much is dependent upon your specific situation and timing in your life. As challenging as it is, life is a series of grey areas where the right way forward is rarely clear. Navigating these contextual inequities in life give us unique challenges and make us strong as individuals.  

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Consider this an encouragement where it comes to words of “wisdom.” Learn the history of those words, who said them, when and in what circumstance. It will go a long way towards helping you decide if the words are wise for you at this time, in this situation, in your life. A little time, a little research, and a little thought given to the many platitudes that cross your path will aid in knowing if the advice you are considering is for you. If it is, then just do it.