In my freshman year of college I painted a sailboat on a lake with a sunset. My teacher told me I was simple-minded. I learned quickly in college that there were subjects that were taboo for educated artists. They represented the low-brow, uninformed masses that clung to art that was pretty, trite, and maudlin. These subjects were the butt of jokes and their makers the object of scorn. I learned to make art like a thinker.
I never fully rejected pretty art, though. I could never forget that I once gazed adoringly at lovely, mindless pictures. “Tender Churl” began with a rebellious stab at something I’ve wanted to do since college. I painted almost all the well-agreed-upon forbidden painting subjects, together in one painting. I didn’t realize when I began the piece that I’d encounter broader concepts than I expected in this somewhat humorous and (I thought) shallow endeavor.
While I painted I thought about why people painted unicorns and baby kitties. Cutesy subjects are very popular with a whole lot of people. They say there is a Thomas Kinkaid painting in 1 out of 20 homes in America. The answer is simple. This kind of art is an escape from the humdrum, the tragic, the real. It displays universal ideas of goodness, so we can drift away from our imperfect lives, if only for a few seconds. As my painting took shape I identified with this diversionary subject matter, and recognized many ways and means that I find to distract myself from life when I don’t like what I see.
I intended to paint my unicorn clown and her pet kitty in the same manner as my other pieces, but from the beginning they seemed different to me. A little creepy, perhaps. They reminded me of scary people I’ve met who had forced smiles and a saccharin demeanor, but clearly were up to no good. I asked myself if I could ever identify with this artificial character, and the answer was Yes. I know how to pretend.
I can reach for a variety of tactics when I want to escape my particular reality. (Several paintings have emerged from them.) “Glazing over” is one of them. It is a hard habit to catch because, by definition, I stop catching things. But if I pay close attention I can tell that if something is too difficult to deal with at the time, I can just tell myself, “This is not happening.” It is a resolute turning away from that which I cannot bear. In the place of what actually stands before me is a fantasy world where the problem at hand is almost of no importance. I convince myself of a long list of other realities which include: I am so much better than this; I’ve got so many good things in my life that this doesn’t matter; I’ll have this problem wrapped up so fast I won’t even take time to look at it; I’ll get to this later, it’s not that bad. In other words, I avoid the issue by putting on a happy and false face.
Instead of pretending that everything is Perfectly Lovely, I could look at the reality at hand squarely and admit what’s actually happening. If I were honest, I’d probably look at the issue and say, “I am hurt, scared, and confused by this problem. I don’t like it” But many times I’d rather put off looking at it. I’m just not ready.
Now the “reality” of the situation at hand is only my reality, determined by many factors, including my own colored perceptions. Reality, in this case, is my idea of the situation. But that idea is supremely important, because it is what’s bothering me. My view may be cock-eyed, overly-sensitive, or completely off-base, but if that’s how I’m seeing it, that’s what I have to admit to. If I don’t, I have no chance of getting at what’s really happening.
After I become aware of how I’m seeing a situation (even if it seems misguided) I ultimately will need to understand, even on the simplest level, where my perception originated. If I’m seeing another person as menacing, bothersome, or antagonistic or a situation as baffling and impossible, I try to become open to memories of people and situations from my past that felt similar. Most often a difficult situation is a re-experiencing of a lesson I didn’t quite get through my head the last time (or the first time) it came around. I probably wasn’t ready and didn’t have the emotional strength to face it then.
Facing the pain now, the discomfort that I wasn’t ready to feel then, seriously hurts! I think, “I’m a grown up, and this is a stupid baby feeling.” It also has probably been bottled up for so long it is like horribly bad “psychic indigestion,” as Thomas Keating calls it. I will feel the avalanche of emotion swelling, ready to spill, and I’ll try to stick my finger in the dike, thinking I’ll act too crazy when it comes out, or keep crying forever, or open up a Pandora’s Box of other emotions that I won’t be able to handle. But if I’m brave enough to let it out, I find a few things. Yes, it hurts like the dickens. Yes, it actually is a baby feeling, but it’s not stupid. And yes, I do act a little crazy when I’m crying or being really angry. But it doesn’t last near as long as I expect. After lots of practice at it, I actually try to draw it out as long as I can, to be sure I extract as much of it from my unconscious as I can in one sitting. I may not actually have that much control over it, but I do try not to inhibit its intensity or its time frame. I want it out!
When I discover that my unwanted outlook on the situation has a foundation in primal emotions from past situations, I start to see my former “insanity” as a natural reaction for someone who’s been in my shoes. It becomes easier to build compassion for myself and for others who have similar experiences.
Freeing my psychic burdens in this way is the work of a lifetime. It is the Road to Happiness, the most important work I do. I heard somewhere that I don’t need to add anything to myself to be a whole person, only to take away the false, destructive ideas that keep me from recognizing and living into my wholeness. If I keep at it, I stay dedicated to the honorable work of releasing the bonds of ignorance.
Now if I had to wake up to all the painful things I’m evading at once, I’d be a mess. Denial is a good thing. It protects me from pain that might truly overwhelm me until I am ready to take a look at it. I can put on my unicorn-clown-with-a baby-kitty face and be grateful I have it. I used to look back at how blind I was to my problems and felt embarrassed that I stayed in the dark so long. I’ve since realized that denial is an important and necessary mechanism for sanity. It is a buffer that holds me gently until I am strong and safe enough to take a peek at the tough stuff.
How do I get strong and safe enough to face that festering old junk? I hang out with people who make me feel strong and safe. I watch others bravely take on their own messy insides. I move through other problems that make way for clearer vision to see the problem at hand. I take care of myself. All of these things improve my connection with Grace and make it easier and easier to be honest with myself on a regular basis.