That's Not What You Are: The Kindest Words
by Jennifer Paros
Years ago, I was in art school and the art department was having a Juried Show in which students submit pieces by hanging them in the hallway, where a professional artist selects the winners for display. I was, at the time, frightened of this idea, and hadn’t ever chosen to submit anything for consideration until the day I made a painting in class that my professor suggested I enter.
Although I was pleased about the positive attention, my insecure self, inclined to hiding, was not so sure about the opportunity. Waves of anxiety rushed through me as I worked, with my teacher, to prepare the painting for display. It was a medium-sized painting on a wooden board.
The day came and I went about the business of hanging my piece, although I did so through a storm of emotional upheaval and nerves. I have no memory of a moment of strain or spasm while striving to get that painting up on the wall and yet, sometime after, I was to suffer with the worst back pain of my life. I was twenty-five years old and over the next months found myself unable to sit comfortably for more than ten minutes at a time, was at the chiropractor twice a week, and was sometimes so incapacitated as to be in tears as my fiancé (now my husband) undressed and got me into a hot bath because I could not bend enough to be able to remove so much as a shoe.
In cause and effect thinking, the summation would be: “Well, you really screwed up your back when you lifted that painting.” And perhaps this is true, yet I believe there is more.
Somehow, although the opportunity to potentially be a part of an art show was a NICE thing, I was running a story in my head that wasn’t so nice. And the nature of the story had to do with a perception that what I produce or do is reflective of my value. Unawares, I had made the decision that my sense of self was made vulnerable when another steps in to judge my work. Framed with that belief, the painting became heavy in my psyche, representing an untrue view of myself that was ultimately pain-producing. Just as the straight-A student can act like those straight A’s define her as special and of great value, the truth is the value of that student goes way beyond those grades. In comparison to what she really is, those grades are a pittance. They’re really nothing. The value of the individual is deep and resonant and exists with or without “great” or “poor” achievement and validation in the external world.
In writing the same issues are operative. The book we write is, at best, something of our own perception, insight, and connection we wish to share; it is reflective of a tiny quality portion of all that we have to offer. But our value remains way beyond anything we can do, say, or present.
Whether we are currently thinking we are great because of how we look, act, or what we do, or that we are inadequatebecause of how we look, act, or what we do, we are suffering from a misperception. Humans create all kinds of things ranging from what we consider beautiful to what we consider awful, but our value is to be found in none of that.
Our writing is communication – conversation with ourselves, life, our perceptions, and ultimately, an audience. But our value is that which is core and does not and cannot turn off or run out when we stop writing.
Recently, my youngest son and I got into a contentious exchange and I started letting off steam. My tone and approach had become negative and reactive when he managed to yell out: “That’s not what you are!”
And I thought, He’s right. Beyond this one moment of behavior, which he and I both were witnessing, there was something much better and more authentic within me. I consider these the kindest words he could have spoken at that moment, for instead of choosing to attack what I was presenting, he chose instead to redirect my attention to what I really am and its value.
And so, whether we’re looking at our painting, assessing our manuscript, whether we’re giving ourselves an “A” or crushing our hopes with a “E” in appearance or behavior, let us strive to remember: That’s not what we are. For these are the kindest and truest words one can say to oneself or another because our value is great and remains within us always, regardless.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.