We Create Ourselves As A Work Of Art

The mark of the authentic person, of the true self, is the spontaneous expression of what is genuine and true about themselves to others. A beautiful thing this. So full of life. So full of joy.

Study in red with circles, detail. 2020
Transfer print, collage, watercolor, ink, graphite, metallic ink.

But so many of us find this elusive. Somewhere between impossible and occasional with struggles. For some I hear it is their given state. For myself, I feel a pressure, real and imagined, to choose another path, to be self protective rather than authentic. I feel the pressure to conform to other’s expectations. And the façade goes up.

These we learn to put on early. I certainly learned it early. Like so many others is was a matter if self preservation. Or at least my young self believed so. Utter convinced.

My parents were not what David Winnicott called “good enough“ parents. They had both suffered deprivation and abuse of various kinds as children. They were alcoholics as adults. Their efforts at good parenting were mixed with violence and abuse. They vacillated between authoritarian control, inebriated neglect and caring support. It was a mixed bag in my home but the mix was often corrosive and destructive. My true self could go into hiding in a second.

This hiding begins because being so young and nearly completely dependent, our instincts as living organisms is to survive. In dangerous environments our whole lives can become this. We learn to act in ways that secure the approval of our caregivers. This is our strategy to get the love and support we need.

As understandable as our strategy is, it sets us up for trouble for the rest of our lives. Unknowingly we create patterns that inhibit or deny our truest, best selves. We become passive in the face of criticism and abuse. We internalize the all these things and make them our own. And them we live them out.

This process of internalizing the abuse and criticism of our “not good enough” parents leaves us numb and empty. We are left believing in our deepest recesses we are flawed and ruined. We struggle to find meaning. We are disconnected from our true selves.

It might be that our true self is there just waiting for us to discover it, that it is given. That hasn’t been my experience. Instead I have needed to repeatedly challenge the notions instilled by the “not good enough” parenting I received, while at the same time grow into the life and habits of being an authentic person.

Michel Foucault points the way I think. “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” This is tremendously instructive. It is also tremendously hopeful.

I start with a found object: myself. Tentatively I form an idea, a vision of what I want this art work to be. I take away from the object and assess. I add to the object and assess. Is it more like my vision, my ideal? Perhaps or perhaps now even less. Either way I have another go. I’ll make more assessments and craft again.

In time, even my ideal will come under my scrutiny checking against authenticity. My earlier vision of a true self may have been another façade and now it must go like an errant line or a blob of paint. And I’ll have another go. And then, later, another still.

There is joy in this process. Collaborating with our deepest selves to bring healing and wholeness in our lives. Collaborating with God and the universe to set things right, even if only in our little spheres. There is a joy of becoming, of coming back to life, of finding meaning. There is the joy of meeting your true, authentic self in all your beauty, at last.

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