Art saved my life. Photography saved my life. There. I said it. And I’m not overstating it. Look at this photograph.
What is the bee doing? There is more than one answer to that question. But in essence, the bee is being a bee. He’s hanging out on the flower so he can pollinate. He’s doing what a bee does because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. But what if you could take a baby bee and raise it with a flock of birds? What do you think would happen? If the bee had human characteristics he might try to fit in and act like a bird. He would try to eat worms and fly in formation but he wouldn’t like it or be very good at it. The other birds would say things like “Why does he keep flying in circles?” or “What’s with the flowers? He’s always trying to eat flowers. Why can’t he eat worms like everyone else? He must be crazy.” They would judge the bee and chastise him for being different and he’d become a sort of social outcast. Sure, the birds would tolerate him. But he’d never really be part of their crowd. He’d get the “weirdo” label. And the bee, being a bee and not a bird, would be a very unhappy camper. He might think things like “Why can’t I be like the other birds? Why do I want to do those things anyway? Why can’t they leave me alone and let me fly in circles and pollinate flowers? There must be something wrong with me.” Of course, that doesn’t happen in the real world. Or does it? Bees are bees and they hang with the other bees. And birds do the same. But we humans! Ahh… That’s another story. What do we have that the birds and the bees don’t have? We have self-awareness and we live in a self-organized culture. The birds and the bees are simply following their pre-programmed instincts.
In his book, “The Soul’s Code” psychologist James Hillman proposes what he calls “The Acorn Theory”. The theory says that each person already holds all his potential inside himself at birth. This potential lies dormant until the person answers his life’s calling. Once that happens, the potential blossoms and grows and the innate gifts shine forth. The answering of that life calling can happen in a moment or it may take years. Many of us never answer the call so it never happens at all. The bee realizes its potential at birth. Human beings…not so much. So what? Well, I’m pretty sure that, like the bee, each of us is born with an innate sense of what we are supposed to become. A destiny, if you will. We are each structured in a certain way, bestowed with certain gifts and a certain way of thinking. This goes against much of the prevailing ideas in psychology and sociology. Some think that we’re born a blank slate and that we’re simply a product of our environment and the influences around us. I think that’s bullpuckey. If that’s true then we’re not individuals at all. We’re victims and we have absolutely no control over who we become. Putting it like that it seems ludicrous, doesn’t it? Yet, despite all our talk about freedom and individualism, we live a culture that is designed for us to fit in. Yes, I said “designed”. The culture we live in, Market Capitalism, is a human construct. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in nature. In it, most of us have three roles to fill: laborer, consumer, and reproducer. In no way are we expected to answer our inner voice and fulfill our destiny. Some do. Most don’t. If you do, great. Good for you. If not, no one really cares…as long as you play out the three roles expected of you. Sure, you’re free to express yourself…up to a point. As long as you do so within the bounds of what is acceptable. In our society that means as long as you don’t disturb the normal operations of day to day business and the filling of the above three roles. But what happens if you don’t fit into that mold? What happens if your inner programming means that you don’t function well in the “normal”? What happens if you don’t learn best by sitting in a classroom? Or if you don’t perform at your best by working on an assembly line? Or climbing the corporate ladder over the dead weight of your co-workers? Or grinding the day away in a cubicle? What happens if your retail job is slowly killing your soul and you know it because you can feel it? Well then, you’re on your own pal, because there is no societal need for you to do anything else.
All my life all I ever wanted to do was be an artist. I knew it in my bones. Now that sounds like a simple statement. But it took me 50 years to figure that out. What kept me from doing it? Fear. Judgment from others. The pressures of doing what I was supposed to do. Fear of failure. As James Hollis puts it in “The Archetypal Imagination”, I was “afraid to move from the confining powers of fate into the invitations of (my) destiny… to stand respectfully before inner truth and dare to live it in the world”. You see, being an artist means living an unconventional life. It means following your muse, everything else be damned. It means swimming upstream. Going against the grain. Ok, so I’m overusing the clichés. But clichés are clichés for a reason: they contain more than a grain of truth and we all understand what they mean. My own refusal to follow my calling almost destroyed me. It cost me everything that we are taught to believe is important. It wrecked my marriage. I lost my job, my home, and my family. I went bankrupt. Twice. And I spent 36 years as a drug addled, alcohol soaked, self-pitying bag of bones. On the outside, I had “everything”. I had a nice suburban home with a big yard, a pool, a hot tub, and all the other trimmings. I had three cars, a great family, and a successful career (near the arts, of course) pulling down six figures. But I hated my life. I hated myself. And it was all because I didn’t do what I was meant to do. Instead, I spent those 36 years running away, dancing around the edges of my muse. I tried writing, music, painting, and drawing. I went into the media production business and worked as a sound engineer, producer, video editor, and animator. Viewed from the outside I had the appearance of a successful life. But inside, I was a complete wreck because I never had the courage to do what I was meant to do. I wasn’t being a bee. At the end of it all, when I hit bottom, I literally wanted to die. I laid in the muck at the bottom of the barrel for quite a while staring death right in the eye. Waiting for it. Wishing for it. Wanting it. Then something happened. There came a moment when I actually had to decide: do I live or do I die? If I chose to live, I knew the road back would be a brutal battle. Every moment would be filled with the anguish of facing myself, the things I’d done, and the people I’d hurt. If I chose to die all I had to do was let go. Facing that choice head on and weighing it on the scales is a very humbling and sobering thing. So I made a choice. I woke up on a bed in a rehab center with literally nothing. I had lost it all except for one thing: my calling. The muse was still there, whispering. I wanted to make art. I needed to make art. It was my only remaining connection to myself. Everything else had been stripped away. For the first time in longer than I could remember, I could see the world around me in all its glory and I could hear the voice of my muse clearly. That’s what it took for me to see who I really am. When I got out of rehab and started to rebuild my life, I felt strangely liberated. I was free of all the expectations that the world had dropped on me and free of the weight I had thrown on myself. After what I had been through I didn’t care what anyone else thought about me. I had nothing and no one expected anything from me. Except that I would end up back at the bottom, in the muck. But I was awake! So I accepted my calling and began to try to find a way to express myself. To make the work that I had to make. The work that comes from the muse that is with me always. And guess what happened. Look at the work. It speaks for itself.
To be continued in Part 2…