Confidence And Clarity: Bringing Ourselves Into Focus

by Jennifer Paros 

For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.
— Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

When I was five I took a ballet class.  Looking back I understand it was more of a creative ballet experience.  Mostly we marched around with drums and other percussion instruments, following the lead of a very nice enthusiastic lady. When it ended I told my mother, in no uncertain terms, I wanted more.  She knew clarity when she heard it and signed me up for the next level, age appropriate class when the time came.  Unfortunately that class was ballet.  Pounding away on drums, marching with vehemence and dogged determination felt like me being me, in focus and confident.  But this other thing – being taught what to do and practicing it over and over again – did not.  I had recognized and found myself in the first class and felt distressingly absent in the second.

Photographs usually include things both in and out of focus.  Often it’s what’s in the foreground that is clear and things and/or people in the background that are fuzzy.  But it varies. The photographer determines the focus and priorities.  In life, when we focus more on things or people outside us, it can leave us out of focus.  Everything (excepting us) becomes vivid, so detailed in our minds we might experience ourselves as less than what we really are.  This out of focus-ness can feel like depletion and insecurity.

When I was sixteen, I got my first job - at a bakery.  It was a family owned business filled with yellers.  The head baker was Barry; his mother, Sylvia, ran the front counter.  Sylvia, sturdy and somewhat coarse, liked to tell the girls historical tales from the frontlines of her life and show us her old, postoperative scars.  Sylvia zeroed in on my nervousness.  Her curative approach was to try to volume the tentativeness out of me.  And some how the more Sylvia was Sylvia, the less I was me. When I returned home after each shift, I peeled off my powder blue polyester pantsuit and threw it in the corner of my room.  I couldn’t seem to find one ounce of myself that summer. 

For years I looked back on my time at the bakery as a failure, despite having found a job and saved for college.  I had done what I was supposed to do but there had been no spirited marching and banging, no confidence, no me.  All I’d really gotten to experience was what life is like when my focus remains out there so much so that the environment feels overwhelmingly big and I feel overwhelmingly small. 

There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true Self.
— William James

Throughout my childhood, I brought much of my schoolwork to my father for checking; he especially helped with math.  I didn’t often enjoy the tutoring and aid but was afraid I needed it.  Entering high school, I purposefully chose to handle math on my own and did fine. But the habit of looking for help remained, somewhat quelled, but kept alive by patterned, insecure thinking.  So, later, finding myself in a bind due to a complication regarding a research paper, I panicked and turned to my Dad, and he was kind enough to assist.  The paper got an A but I hated it; it didn’t feel like mine. He had helped so much I’d accidentally erased myself from the process and the writing.

The feeling of my own absence was so poignant that, after many years of thinking I needed help, something in me finally broke.  I could no longer stand the lack of confidence resulting from looking outside myself for clarity. The next big paper I wrote was a comparative piece for English class that I did unchecked and unaided.  Sitting at my desk, our Smith Corona electric typewriter humming away, it was like my first solo flight in an aircraft for which, previously unawares to me, I’d been well trained.  And there I was – discovering I was completely capable.  I was so in focus that the blurry, insecure self left and the drum beating, marching girl made her return.

We are the focusing mechanisms through which our stories are told and through which we experience life.  We decide what the point is and what matters to us.  When we bring ourselves into focus, and allow that clarity, confidence is inevitable - and not only do we find our fuller selves, we find whatever it is we wish to create.   

Violet Bing

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website.