I've been in Estes Park for a little over a month now- how time flies! It feels just like home in the most wonderful way, perhaps because it's been a burning desire of my heart for many months now to be out in the mountains- but also (and mostly) to be closer to something else I've been seeking too.
There is an air of hopeful possibility in knowing not necessarily what is ahead, but who I am: there is such a difference. These past few years have been such a coming-into-my-own (maturing, growing, moving forward in my inner life), that the future is not fearful simply because I feel a new sense that I am on solid ground despite what happens around me. It is what's within me- the very center of my heart- that is legitimately and honestly fixed on love, centered in God, and I am confident and excited for the creative path I'm on.
I've met people here in Colorado from all walks of life, all places in the country and the world, all faiths and beliefs, all ages, and with all different situations and intentions. It has been refreshing to test myself by being dropped into some place totally unknown, and to navigate it with a poise and sense of confidence that comes not from knowing 'I am 'talented'' or 'I am 'cut out for this job'' or 'I am 'happy with my circumstances,'' but from knowing simply, 'I am.'
There is a whole new level of trust I have embarked on by coming here that I would never have known was real if I never took the risk.
Each of us, I realize from talking to people on a real, intimate level, carry stories: stories of our lives, our paths; what we want, what we dream of, what we desire, what we believe. Our lives are living stories. So much of creativity, for me, is telling the story, narrating it, letting it breathe and live, whatever that looks like. It's a very human part of my soul- of every soul, I think: the desire not to be praised or validated or ill-intentionally noticed, but known. Simply seen, and known.
Five years ago I thought it was a crazy-yet-totally-ideal idea to be someone who simply followed their dream wherever it lead them, and was content in being who they were made to be. I also thought it was impossible: to not be afraid to know and rely on myself, to walk contentedly alone- but with a love for others, and to live the simple life I live now: painting, creating for a living; simply having experiences and processing them with a paintbrush and some colors and not attaching to outcome more than what is happening right now.
Looking at the world before me, sharing how I see it, and hoping it is'good enough.' I now realize it was always good enough. But of course that realization depends on who I believe is my ultimate audience, and from Whom I get my ultimate approval. That's a subconscious, learned, cultivated perspective that comes from perception of the world more than a 'practice,' religion, or effort within it.
All I really wanted was what I have right now: to be myself, to live from my own unique, specific, individually-ordained purpose- and to have an unshakable inner peace that actually doesn't come from those conditions (or other peoples' acceptance or approval of them) at all.
The truest happiness is not having what I have, it's knowing I'd still be fine if I lost it all. I now see how vital it was to wait for all this, to wait to be where I am now; to be patient in coming to the life I have- to have watched so many other peoples' dreams seem to come true before mine, to have watched things 'work out' for what seemed at one point like everyone but myself, to have been delayed in getting what I wanted, to have had to suffer, even.
All of it taught me what it means to have true and abundant life.
And the learning is eternal. It will always be a deepening process. It was Hemingway who said, 'you must be prepared to work always without applause.' I've learned not to be hopeless about the fact that so much of life cannot be authentically validated by praise from people or by what we can do ourselves to seem worthy or impressive. We're not designed to live optimally that way. We have to sometimes spend years creating (not just art, but our lives) from a place where it seems like no one cares what we are doing or even who we are, maybe- and where we don't place our ultimate identity in our results, even if they are good and affirmed by others.
As a human being, this is hard. As an artist- a human being who feels a creative pull to make, to contribute, to go deeper into the world- it is maybe almost harder. Real, soul-full art is all honesty and vulnerability. But if you're validated and built up by praise and compliments, you'll be ruined by opposition and vindictiveness.
There's another, divine source from where I've learned to get my I am. It's a greater beyond, a reality that exists when I realize how foolish, in a way, it is to assume that joy itself can come from the broken world in which we are living, or from the broken person which I am: imperfect, scarred, having struggled even to live, it seemed, some times and some seasons; not always able on my own.
There is something about the (counter-cultural, counter-intuitive) philosophy of living surrendered that yields more personal power than anything in the universe.
Just this week, I began reading a book I've been meaning to for a while: The Pursuit of God, by AW Tozer. The premise (so far) is about this idea (familiar to me now as a Christian, but absent to my thinking for most of my life) that God alone is all we are ultimately designed to need for that lasting, confident inner peace we are all searching for; and that this is a matter of our human design, our hearts- not our personalities, or external expressions of any kind, or 'what works best for us depending on 'who we are.''
It seems insane in a world which tells us to possess, to hoard up our treasures and use them for a later date; to want, to think of me. To always be getting more and more. And it is not necessarily the getting of more and more that deadens us inside, but our possessiveness of and attachment to the things we get: money, fame, validation; even family, people, friends, etc. It's so natural for us to do this that we hardly recognize how harmful it is to our whole existence.
It is at the root of why we suffer, and it's not a metaphor, but a real thing. A sort of spiritual cancer with which we were never designed to live. Things in this world were never intended to be good enough. It's an amazing discovery to the person who has always supposed that things- be they monetary, physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, personal- were all there was to accumulate in life. But none of them- even if successfully mastered or coped with- fill the heart.
"Things were made for man's use, but they were always meant to be external to the man, and subservient to him. In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him. Our woes began when God was forced out of His central shrine and things were allowed to enter." -AW Tozer
When we mistake what God has given us for God Himself, it's a kind of idolatry of something that's close but can't really fill the void; it seems like a seamless exchange but is actually deadly to our soul. It is not living as an artist (all I really personally want) that is the thing I love, but the Giver of the thing. It is not the mountains that I really love, but the Giver of that thing. It is never the thing that satisfies. I notice now this will be one of the most important realizations I ever make: that there is a specific, characteristic, knowable something- some One- who is alone worthy of filling the void my human heart had always tried to fill itself, with things.
It's been a weird, glorious, wonderful journey these past few years to move closer to that, to the source, than to the mere things that come from it.
There has been a reorientation of the depth of every blessing- even those that seemed like curses. It is not so much that 'becoming a Christian' is the thing that did it; it is more that 'opening my eyes to the reality of my design, the way I was intended to live' that drove me, gradually, to Christianity. It was not a choice of one religion or path over the other; it was a truth arrived at once I saw myself- or let myself be seen- for real, nothing hidden; everything- good and horribly ugly- in the light. Our God isn't interested in the non-transparency we've been taught is acceptable.
It's not, like I thought, the absence of God that is the opposite of faith, but idolatry: making something else (usually our selves, enlightened as they can become) a stand-in for God, an idol; I realize now it is not a question of do I worship, but what do I worship. Myself and every last one of us, by way of being human, lets something (maybe money, maybe success, maybe religion, maybe a practice, maybe a ritual, maybe 'the next best thing;' maybe our anger, sadness, self-constructed identity) hold the spot in our hearts that only God can satisfactorily and reliably fill.
It is our nature to possess until we see to Whom we ourselves belong. Nothing has driven out of my heart the idea that I will one day 'master life' or overcome every shortcoming by trying harder like accepting into my heart the spirit of a God who can.
I am no longer convinced that fighting for my worth, power, or status actually gives me any- really. Maybe in the eyes of other people- but (humbling as it is) that doesn't matter. I am no longer convinced that rebelling against 'what I think is badness' is as powerful a lifestyle as 'accepting pure goodness.' There is something entirely freeing about a human heart satisfied in God instead of things: things being religion, things being philosophies; being money, acceptance, intellect, or whatever else we harbor as our ultimate source of worth or known-ness.
I'm learning that at varying times in our lives, we have demons to fight and struggles to overcome, and also that it's not only too much effort for control if we try to do it alone, but much more effective to spend our lives pursuing love than battling with darkness. There are a lot of ways to navigate through the darkness of life- but Light breaks darkness best.
We could spend our lives fighting against negative things- or loving and passionately pursuing beautiful ones; what we give our mental energy (and heart energy) to determines everything about who we become and who we believe we are. I have always believed, I think, in the deepest part of myself, that nothing is really random; that the force I used to call 'the universe' was connecting a story for me for my life; and that everything that happened happened for a reason.
There was a little hope in that perspective that had a lot of room to get bigger. And it has.
There's a world of hope in understanding who God wants me to be even when I don't understand myself what I want to be, or who I could be, or what's ahead. There has been no transformation like coming out of the darkness and deciding to walk in the light, into the person and the life I was really designed for- not just on the outside, the appearance; but on the inside, in regards to the position of my heart. From here, a true, peaceful life flows.
Tozer writes: "Jesus calls us to his rest, and meekness is His method. The meek man cares not at all who is greater than he, for he has long ago decided that the esteem of the world is not worth the effort."
There is freedom so ultimate and everlasting when the rewards of this world and the validation of people in it are realized as 'not enough.' It not only gives us the space to pursue and live our dreams and truest life, but it lays- without the effort of trying- a path for others who happen to be in our lives by hopefully inspiring them through example: not the example of doing any particular thing or achieving something specific or having 'success' or notoriety, but the example of what it looks like to walk through the world being seen, being known; being accounted for and loved: not by people, not by the universe, but by a loving, intimate, relationship-seeking Creator.
It turns out that we find what we are truly looking for not when we find it, not when we first lay our eyes upon it or when it actually manifests and becomes seen to us- but once we learn with our heart to identify exactly what it is.