The Best Version of Myself

Oompa Loompa

Sometimes I wish I was someone else. Or, more accurately, sometimes I wish I was the best version of myself more often. Maybe we all feel that way at times. Even George Clooney and Angelina Jolie must feel that way now and again. Insecurity comes in many shapes and guises. It could be that so much of our insecurity stems from our inability to maintain the best of ourselves; to be consistently what we feel we could be. Perhaps this kind of feeling is buried deep down in a lot of people, hidden under layers of experiences, abuses, sins, wins, fails and half-ass attempts. Many maybe never think about it. Many may think this is a bunch of navel-gazing bullshit. Many may be right. Or wrong.

I know I have been frustrated being me. At times that veers into self-loathing but mostly it is more like self-annoyance. It is those moments where I get all existential and float outside looking in. I don’t like hanging out with myself because myself is being a prick. But I can’t really get away. I’m stuck with me for the rest of my life. When I am in a full-on gripe session with myself, this can be a depressing thought.

Can you relate or is this just weirding you out right now? I know some of us are more taken with self-introspection than others. I am jealous of you at times; you who can blithely live free from the grip of the inner-angst gremlins that are banging pots in pans in my kitchen right now.

I always imagined this would go away as I got older. Unfortunately, at least for me, it has just gotten worse; worse because I get so annoyed with the fact that I’m getting older and should be getting over this silliness.

I am too old to think I could ever be someone else. But I am not too old to believe I can work to be the best version of myself more often. There are times, believe it or not, when I like myself; those are days I really do like being with me. When I think about those days one abiding thought comes to mind: I’m not focused on myself! When I am most miserable is when I am spending far too much time concerned with how I am coming across, if I am impressing people, if I am doing or saying things that make me stand out. When I am most happy and content, I could give a damn about that stuff; in fact, I’m just enjoying life and enjoying the people around me. That’s when I can stand being me. More so, I like being me!

But how to stay in that place more often? How to linger there and make it a habit of life? There’s a Catch 22 here in the fact that focusing on myself too much makes me miserable. Yet I have to spend some time in self-reflection to discover just when I am the best version of myself. I suppose that is exactly what I’m doing now in this blog. Aren’t you glad I included you in on my self-obsessed rantings and ravings? You’re welcome.

Uh-oh… veering into the self-loathing category. Time to right myself again!

Okay, I’m better now.

Do you get what I’m talking about? Ironically, in a culture of counting Facebook likes and creating the perfect selfie, I have discovered that living less in a world about yourself is a far happier state than focusing on yourself all the time. That is, living in such a state of self-awareness that you begin to forget self makes you a far, far better version of yourself than you can ever hope to manufacture.

Maybe that’s the contrast: self-aware, not self-centered. Understanding yourself well and being okay with the good, bad and ugly instead of trying to craft yourself into something you are not.

Ultimately, the best version of myself is never, ever going to be perfect. But it certainly will make me (mostly) happy. And it is has a much greater chance of helping others find the best versions of themselves, too. Self-centeredness is never going to help anyone, least of all yourself. Self-loathing will never help you, either, and will present a you to the world that just drags people down.

It’s okay to spend time trying to known yourself better. Just don’t end up locked in solitary confinement with yourself. We each hold the keys to get out of that cell. Time to set ourselves free, don’t you think?



To Be Nobody But Yourself


To be nobody but yourself –

in a world that is trying its best, night and day,  to make you everybody else –

means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;

and never stop fighting.

e.e. cummings

My wife bought a piece of artwork with this quote on it for me many years ago. She knows me very well. She understood then and she understands now that the “hardest battle” of my life has been the fight to be truly myself. She loves who I am and wants me to experience that and, more so, wants other people to experience who I am. Yet there are times I’ve felt crushed by the weight of other people’s expectations. And times when I’ve felt that who I am was slowly disappearing.

A friend of mine recently commented to me that it seems I’m going through a “mid-life revival”. I really liked that sentiment. He was referring to the fact that I have been delving back into artwork, posting my creations on Facebook and also writing the very blog you happen to be reading right now (thanks for that, by the way).  Edging closer to 50, I am putting myself out there more than ever and expressing myself in these ways more than I have for many years.

I am an artist. And like so many artists, I’m not content to stick to one area of creative expression but tend to dabble in multiple areas when I get the chance. I have always felt most fully alive when I am making visual art or making music or acting on stage or writing prose. I made the decision to enter the blogosphere because I wanted the impetus to get back into writing for the shear creative joy of it.

For many artists, the act of creating is almost as natural as breathing. But it has not always been so for me. I have had long stretches in life where I felt I was becoming someone else and that artist side of me was fading, fading away. There are a number of factors that contributed to this but most of it had to do with a Twofold set of realities in my life: (1) I am a Christian; and (2) I am a Pastor.

The evangelical Christian world is not always the most welcoming and accommodating world for the artist. Artists, when they are remaining true to their creative impulse, like to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, challenge themselves and others to view their world from different angles and in different tones and hues. This impulse is not generally encouraged or fostered in the evangelical Christian setting. The mysterious, the mystical, the grey areas, the fringes – these are not places where the Evangelical mind and spirit tend to go. Yet they are precisely where the Artistic mind and spirit go on a regular basis. The Artist doesn’t mind ambiguity, uncertainty. The Evangelical minds it a great deal and much prefers clarity and certainty.

I am generalizing, of course. But I stand by these generalizations because they are so often the way things play out. And so often the Artist feels very much a stranger in a strange land when he or she dares dwell among the Evangelicals. I have dwelt in that place and felt strange indeed. I have sensed the tension. When I did have the Jones to create, I’d find myself self-editing, concerned that I might offend someone. Or I’d have to defend myself for acting in a play in which the character I was playing said “Oh my God.” Or I would get the less than enthusiastic responses that spoke quiet volumes of displeasure about something I had created. And often I found myself tucking the artist in me deep down somewhere where it would not rock any feathers or ruffle and boats.

Yet, ironically, I ended up in Christian ministry, a Pastor. I won’t get into how that all happened because, frankly, after almost 20 years I am still bemused by it. Imagine, if you will, already feeling on the margins of Christian life and then ending up as someone who people look to for leadership in that Christian life. My artistic sensibilities took a beating from my own sense of responsibility to “the Call” and from the expectations of the Flock. When these things conspired together the Artist in me became almost undetectable and I no longer felt the natural impulse to create. I would continue to be creative, of course, and find avenues to do so, but it became a sidebar to my life, not a main part of the story.

I was doing good things for people and trying my best to remain faithful to what I felt God was asking me to do. But my wife could see that who I am and what made me feel most fully alive were not being given adequate expression. So when she came across the quote above, she thought of me.

I do not blame my Christianity or my role as a pastor in the Church for this fight to be myself. If anything, I have found over the years that I have no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to hide things away, to bury the Artist deep within; no one forced me to do these things. If anything, this Mid-Life Revival is showing me my own responsibility in all of that and also challenging me to no longer allow that to happen in my life. And it is my faith, and the belief in a God who created me exactly the way I am supposed to be, that gives me the motivation to be nobody but myself. In fact, I have begun to see that it was the Artist in me, the part of me that liked to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, not be content with simplistic answers, and continually embrace challenges, that has made me most effective in my years of Christian ministry. I look at the Bible and my faith from odd angles, as an artist would, and that has given a distinctiveness to what I do as a pastor.

To any of you out there who also exist in this tension-land of Art and Faith, I would ask you to take heart. You do belong. You do have a role to play. People will not always understand you. You may offend some. You may confuse others. And there may be times others question your faith or you yourself do the questioning. But as artists we’re here to give expression to alternate realities, to be on a continual quest for compassion, to make people feel a bit uneasy in order for them to see God where they hadn’t seem him before.  That is a scary but fabulous calling.

The Great Artist made you an artist for a reason. So be that artist.

To those of you who are not artists, know that we will sometimes freak you out, whether you are a Christian or not. We will sometimes offend you. We will certainly confuse you. But if you let us speak, sing, act, write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance – create – you will be opening yourself up to a much bigger world. And that expanse in your spirit and mind and heart will make it that much easier to embrace all of Creation. You, too, are unique and uniquely gifted. And you, too, help people see God.

From now on until I die, I want to be unashamedly myself. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel I’m on the right track. I have steeled myself for the fight. Bring it on!

Faking It

554150__the-wizard-of-oz_pIs it better to be able to do something well or to just look like you are able to do something well?

There are times I feel that I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really, really good at faking it. A great part of my own personal angst in life centers on this theme. I have been and am now involved in many things that I feel completely under-qualified for and under-skilled in. In the unlikely event that I might write my autobiography, I have a ready-made title: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!

Of course, you recognize that reference; “The Wizard of Oz” is permanently embedded in our communal pop-cultural cortex. There are many subversively profound adult issues hiding in this unforgettable children’s story. All the Big Questions are there: “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?”, “What is the Meaning of Life?”, “Why Do Flying Monkeys Freak Me Out?”. Likely there is something in the tale of the Yellow Brick Road that resonates with you; maybe it is the search for personal courage; a longing for home; a life journey with unlikely fellow travelers. Certainly, there are many aspects of the L. Frank Baum classic that draw us in and reach us on a deeply personal level. For me, it is that moment when Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the true “wizard”: the Kansas snake oil salesman who is feverishly working levers, pushing buttons, spinning the whazzit, pulling the thingamabob. We find out then who is behind all the impressively Technicolor pyrotechnics, booming voice and freaky floating green head.

As a child, I was always disappointed by this pedestrian man and his pathetic circus tricks. Just like I could never accept that Dorothy’s adventures were just a dream – that my favorite character, the Scarecrow, was just a lanky farmhand – so I never came to terms with a common shyster pulling off the Great and Powerful shtick. I didn’t get it. He certainly never became one of the beloved denizens of Oz in my imagination.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that as an adult I find myself more and more able to relate to the most uninspiring character in “The Wizard of Oz”? Like the pseudo-wizard, I have often found myself transported into situations where I have had to rely on an ability to make things up as I go along. The first time this happened to me is when I was less-than magically transported to Wisconsin to serve as an intern pastor for a small church in a small town. Arriving there for the year, I came with two – count ’em, two – sermons under my belt, written for a seminary course. I agreed to serve there knowing I’d be expected to craft two sermons every Sunday! So from two to potentially 104 (52 Sundays x 2… do the math). My first message for that church was handwritten on notebook paper as I sat at a picnic table at the local park. I had no office, no computer to work on, many books still packed… Making it up as I go along, indeed!

This should have been an omen for my so-called professional life to come. Amazingly way back then all the way up to this very day – as I continue to put messages together to preach to the current church I serve – I have the same thought running through my head as I had almost twenty years ago when I get up to speak: “What Am I Doing Here?” I never finished seminary, do not hold the coveted Masters of Divinity degree, often have never had a proper study, am lacking in many commentaries and other resources, yet I’ve prepared and preached hundreds of sermons over the years. You’d think all that experience would make me self-confident and assured of my abilities. Instead, I remain convinced that one day a little Toto dog will appear in my life and reveal That Man Behind the Curtain and people will see that it’s just unimpressive, pedestrian me: someone skilled in the fine art of faking it, that is all.

Why do these thoughts assail me? Maybe I just have a terminal case of the humilities. Yet I feel a lot of the same things in my other job, as a personal support worker for an adult day program in Ottawa. We serve adults with a variety of developmental disabilities. I work with many gifted people who bring a great deal of talents and experiences to the table. Over the last few months I have become the designated guitarist and song leader in the place. To me, this is another example of the ludicrousness of my life for the simple reason that I cannot play the guitar! There are a couple of exceptional guitarists at the program, guys who can really, really play. Yet there I am, a few times a week, chugging away in my own extremely unexceptional way on that guitar. I know about 12 chords, my strum patterns would make a guitar teacher cringe, and I could teach someone what I know on the guitar in about a half an hour. Again: “What Am I Doing Here?”

What causes me anxiety in these situations is that people seem to really enjoy what I do. They are genuinely moved and gratified for what I do for them. Yet in the back of my mind is an image of myself putting on a show for people – pulling levers, pushing buttons, spinning the thingamajig; wowing folks with a pretence of competence and skill; a patina of shiny impressiveness covering a poorly-made pot with feet of clay.

I do take comfort in one thought, however: That pseudo-wizard of Oz turned out to be a nice guy trying to do his best in a very unusual situation. In fact, he helped Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion find exactly what they were looking for. Somehow, even though he was not who they thought he was, he turned out to be exactly what they needed. In fact, it was his ability to fake it that drove the heroes of the story on to confront their fears, take the risks, deepen their understanding of themselves, and gain self-confidence. Ultimately, he may have been a bit of a disappointment but what came of all his pseudo-wizardly machinations was profound.

He didn’t really have the chops to be the Great and Powerful Oz but what he did have still motivated people towards something Great and Powerful in their lives. Considering this gives me some insight into the answer to the question: “What Am I Doing Here?” I am a common man with common abilities, nothing more. Yet, when you think about it, it is the common people who have all effected us the most in our life journeys. We all have humble and unexceptional examples in our lives who have had a lifelong and exceptional impact on us and our growth as human beings.

Maybe, instead of being filled with anxiety about being exposed as That Man Behind the Curtain, I should embrace that role. Maybe instead of considering  it as “faking it”, I should realize that it’s more like taking what little skill you have and using it to the max. Instead of angst and self-loathing, maybe there should be joy and wonder that someone so common can still be used for uncommon purposes.

Here’s a link to classic “Man Behind the Curtain” scene: