After I had done several paintings in the Without a Net series, I noticed a pattern. The traits I was depicting all represented some way I escaped or tolerated or managed a discomfort inside. They were all forms of armor, so I tried to imagine what I’d feel like without any protection at all. Right away the baby duck emerged as the winning candidate for the role in my painting. They are adorable and funny-looking, and quite helpless.
I decided to outfit the defenseless little duck with the amount of defensive covering I felt like I’d been using, an amount I’d only recently become privy to after getting real with myself through my paintings. My artwork had revealed to me how much of my behavior and motives were fueled by my protective responses.
I love Samurai armor. What a strange and lovely way to protect yourself! For visual reasons alone I wouldn’t mind painting a whole series of them. In this painting the suit is bulky and imposing, and dwarfs the baby duck to the point that it would be impossible for the duck to move in it, which is exactly my point. There are features on the suit that resemble parts of other animals, such as a turtle shell and a horn. They allude to the idea of using a variety of creative protection mechanisms. And the eyes on the helmet (which really are a feature of some Samurai costumes) are on the lookout in all directions for possible danger. On real armor I think their purpose may have been to frighten foes.
While allowing myself to “get in touch with my inner baby duck” I reminded myself of the universality of this childhood defenselessness. We all begin life in a vulnerable state, and realize innately we had better develop some abilities to get our needs met. They are called survival skills in some circles, and they are smart, much-needed tools for navigating the imperfect people and environment that surround us. They give us an illusion of power, an impression that if we keep on using these adaptive abilities we’ll always (or eventually) be OK. We don’t realize then that when we grow up these devices will become cumbersome, destructive, and ingrained beyond our power to change without great effort.
In order to take a peek behind the suit of armor, I must take a look at the armor itself, which means facing my bad habits that began as survival skills. First I admit to them, but then dig deeper and see where and why I began developing the skill in the first place. I gain compassion for myself as I see that I fostered the behavior for appropriate and advantageous reasons. It was the only way at the time I could traverse the rocky terrain I encountered. On the heels of recognizing the origins of a particular survival skill, I am usually struck with how pervasive, long-standing, and influential it’s been in the different stages of my life. It’s always a little disheartening, because it becomes glaringly apparent that my willpower and good intentions are categorically ineffective against so great a task as disassembling such an enduring, well-cultivated practice. But experience has taught me that this realization is the beginning of breaking up the habit.
So what about the baby duck? I started this painting with the feeling that without my defensive constructs I am small and delicate. Yet the fact that I had the strength and resilience to develop all these protective mechanisms in the first place shows that I never was all that helpless. I did what was called for in the moment. And now, with awareness and acceptance that these strengths have now become hindrances, I can move forward with dismantling them.
O, the dismantling! I dare say that going back to the original pain that prompted me to build my defenses ranks among the greatest of my fears. I used to see the emotional return to the “scene of the crime” as the thing one would most want to avoid in all of life. The pain, the vulnerability! Yet feeling bad and real is better than feeling good and shut down. After getting used to how rewarding it is, and after helping others access that place and release it for themselves, I see it as the ultimate Gold Mine. My dear Catholic priest, Father Kevin Bazzel told me, “That’s where God is.”
There are uncountable websites and blogs and books and groups that offer 7 Tools for Permanent Successful Change for the Better in Your Life. Or insert any other number and promise. When inquiring about submitting some of my ideas to a site, I was advised that to be published I absolutely had to offer a certain number of steps or tools to an uplifting promise. (I may just oblige, as an experiment.) But in my experience, I don’t need the sassy tips or intellectual knowledge or well-laid-out road map to better living. I need to be honest with where my blocks come from, trudge through the muck and get real with myself (always with the help of someone else) and let the light that is underneath the crap shine on its own.
I don’t need to do much of anything to let that light shine. It’s there, doing it always and forever anyway. The steps toward change in life happen naturally, blissfully, and intuitively when there’s nothing in the way. I can use the suggestions of others and research the logistics of saving money, improving a relationship, growing a business, or getting healthier, but the process of change gets to happen in my own, unique, creative, warm-hearted way.
It was a good thing to depict myself as a helpless baby encumbered by a mountain of fortification. I presume that until I unveil and shed all of my imperfections (never) I may feel like this from time to time. This is fine, because I now feel OK about being vulnerable, about having built impressive armor, and about being stuck in it sometimes. It makes sense. I also have deep gratitude that the load is decreasing in weight, and the light underneath feels brighter all the time.