Tuesday, June 20, 2006
The Art of Encouragement (1)
Here is part one of my Trinity Arts Conference talk. Much of it was read verbatim; several places were expounded in anecdotes that did not make the script. There is an audio version available. I am deeply grateful to have been given the occasion, the excuse if you will, to put these thoughts into written form. I've felt strongly about it for a long time and now understand more clearly why it matters to me so much. I pray it serves its intended purpose.
“All Things: Especially the Little Things
(in particular, little words):
A Meditation on the Art of Encouragement”
“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. –Sir Ernest Shackleton.”
(This from the British Antarctic explorer who placed the advertisement in the London newspapers in 1900 in preparation for the National Antarctic Expedition.)
This, it seems to me, should be posted on the front cover of every art book. Warning: hazardous material inside, might cost you your sanity. Children aspiring to be artists, like children of a communist state, should all be made to memorize the slogan. For herein is described perfectly the life of the artist: small wages, bitter rejections, long months of enduring drafts of work that are complete crap, constant danger from people around you, especially the church-going and blood-related, telling you you’re crazy and weird and wasting your time, safe return to the end of your life doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success, but likely not financial, so hold on to the honor part because that’s probably all you’ll get anyway.
It’s hard being an artist. No matter how you look at it, it’s a miserable vocation we desperately love. Over the last ten years as a working arts pastor, seeing hundreds and hundreds of artists come and go through the doors of Hope Chapel, I have seen many artists succeed and fail, most fighting for every inch of progress, many losing the battle against harsh disappointments, all looking the Minotaur in the face: do I quit or do I keep going?
But if you asked me to tell you the Top Three Most Important Things I’ve Observed throughout all my years as a pastor to artists, one would certainly have to be this: artists need to be in the business of giving and receiving constant encouragement. Honest to God, I spend a third of my job in the simple but constant, and deeply satisfying, task of encouraging artists. It surprised me to realize it just recently, but it’s true.
So if there is a gist to my talk tonight, it goes something like the following. Please bear with me, as it forms the armature for the rest of the content.
The gist of my argument begins with two assumptions.
One: the natural condition of human beings is the condition of being afraid.
Two: for an artist to grow and to become everything that he is meant to be, he must pass through many experiences of pain, each experience ushering him to a new level of maturity.
Two assumptions, two realities.
The two realities we have to deal with as artists are: the beginning of being an artist and the continuing of being an artist. There is the first day we step up to the starting blocks to run the mile and there is the umpteenth day when we ask the question whether we will run a faster mile than last time, or to be more precise, whether we will want to run a faster mile. There is on the one hand the basic fear we all deal with as fallen, sinful humans, and there are on the other hand the one-of-a-kind fears that meet us at every point along the way that we decide to keep growing as artists, to keep pushing ourselves to try new things or to attain excellence in our given medium.
There is the pain of the beginner and there is the pain of the journeyman who wants always to keep advancing, keep climbing.
And then, quite simply, there is the problem of pain. Or rather, pain and fear, the Scylla and Charybdis: the pain of fear and the fear of pain. Pain hurts, and the prospect of being hurt arouses fear. We flee the one and are crushed by the other. Together, pain and fear keep hundreds of thousands of artists on this planet ever from starting out and those they’ve not been able to deter, they constantly derail with failures, the sting of loneliness, and the possibility that you’re simply a fraud, a wannabe.
Thankfully, God has provided us with an antidote: courage. Courage, regarded in classical times as one of the four cardinal virtues, is the virtue by which one faces and overcomes the difficulties and dangers of this world, not rashly, but wisely, not for selfish gain, but for the sake of what is right and a greater good. Courage is what we as artists need to be artists. But as my friend and painter Jim Janknegt reminds me, “You can’t make me courageous, David, but you can en-courage me to be courageous.” Just so, courageousness is not something that can be imposed upon a person. You have to want to be courageous, and the only way for you to become brave, as Aristotle insists in his Nicomachean Ethics, is “by doing brave acts.”
We have to start acting bravely, even when we don’t feel brave, to become the kind of person who is able to press through all the pains and fears that threaten to undo us. And it is with such courage that my friend Mike Akel, who this weekend is on his way to the LA Film Festival, is able to spend three years of his life—and counting—three years of disillusionments and penny-pinching and tedium, making a film that may or may not get national distribution. It is, more to the point, on the strength of a constant flow of encouragement from his friends and family that he is able to resist the powerful temptation to quit.
My point, in short, is this.
Artists are made or broken by the words of encouragement they receive, or barely receive, or never receive. Without encouragement artists will be bullied by the fears inside their hearts and outside, and, left unchecked, they will eventually give up or “settle”—settle for a distasteful mediocrity. With the right encouragement, however, artists will be given the strength to face and press through fear and thus discover, on the other side of their fears, new abilities, new perceptions, new capacities to envision and to generate better work. With such encouragement, artists will be put in the position of being able to achieve their fullest potential. It’s the difference between a minimalist life and a maximalist life.
Let me illustrate. Kay Ramsey is 61 years old. . . .