Friday, May 22, 2009

Resisting discouragement

This photograph was taken during my excursion through the Bloedel Reserve with Barbara. We had stopped to rest on a shady rock in the Japanese Garden, and I caught sight of this reflection through the branches of a tree in front of us.

This morning I received a mailing from the Art of Photography exhibition in San Diego saying they had extended the deadline for their annual exhibition until May 31. Though I have entered (to no effect) in previous years, I've gotten a bit discouraged and had decided not to enter this year. But in the spirit of letting go I decided not to cling to that decision but rather to see if there were something I had shot in the last week or two that might qualify -- the entry fees are not that steep (just $10 at this point).

This one seemed a good candidate; there's another I shot in Portland of children playing in a fountain that I also sent in this morning (I'll put that on my poetry blog). And my friend Robin thinks the poppy I shot yesterday (after Barbara taught me how to use my camera's super macro feature) is my best work ever (that's on the poetry blog, too) so maybe I'll send that off as well.

It's always hard to know what an individual judge will like: I'm particularly aware of that this week, having judged the high school photo contest just last Wednesday. There is an unwritten rule that we try to distribute the winnings as broadly as possible among the students, and all the entries have already been judged twice before I get there, so my challenge is to pick work that hasn't already won a prize -- but, at the same time, I'm told that if there is something so incredibly outstanding that I can't resist it I should honor that impulse even if it's already won something.

Fortunately there are several categories to choose from, so I was able to spread the wealth around, but I did end up awarding two prizes for images that had already been honored; I just frankly found them irresistible. But the tricky part, for me, was that there was one image I really adored -- and it was the prow of a boat. Which means that it's an image I could easily have shot myself, and, in fact, if I HAD shot it myself I would definitely frame it and try to sell it: it was lovely. But it seemed prejudiced -- given that I am best known for my boat photos -- for me to award a boat photo. And there is always the risk that the kids (smart as they are) will figure this out and submit a pile of boat photos for next year's exhibition.

So I only gave it one of the lesser prizes, less than what I felt it deserved. And then, when I dropped by the gallery to meet a friend a few days later, I learned that there was yet another panel of judges who came along after me, mystery judges with additional prize money to award, and they had given that boat picture a first prize. I was thrilled to learn that the student WOULD be getting money, and would be honored for such excellent work; thrilled also -- of course -- to realize it wasn't just prejudice on my part: it really was a good image. At least in someone's eyes.

And that's the trick, of course: judging photography is every bit as individualistic as finding a mate. There are always a few photos -- or people -- that EVERYONE finds appealing. But for the rest of us... well, there's almost always someone out there who will really appreciate us, and lots of other folks who will pass us by without a thought. A good marriage, as this one in the photo appeared to be, can be a particular blessing that way: there's one person who almost always greets you with a smile on their face and joy in their heart. But if you haven't found that one person yet -- or if you haven't won a contest yet in your chosen field -- it's easy to get discouraged, to assume that you or your work is somehow lacking in value.

The trick is not to despair. I don't necessarily mean you have to keep pushing in that particular direction: sometimes repeated failures are an indicator that you may be on the wrong path, and that you're actually called to walk a different direction altogether. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people fired from one job or divorced from one relationship who resolve to take a different tack on the sea of life and find the next opportunity infinitely more rewarding than the other ever could have been. But it's easy to get stuck in despair, to avoid the risk of exploring new opportunities and just claim victimhood as your permanent identity. Laurence Freeman had something to say about that in Jesus the Teacher Within this morning: "Despair," he says, "is the attempt of the ego to immortalize its suffering."

Yup. Been there, done that: Rejection, death, loss, divorce... It can be very tempting to get stuck in the dark place, hanging on to our suffering in response to these challenges. It's so much easier than staying open, facing into the pain, learning what we need to learn, and moving forward. But trust me: despair is a dead-end street, and the alternatives -- however challenging or painful -- will always prove more rewarding. So if something a little different knocks at your door today, open it! Welcome it in! And though I am repeating myself, I just have to end with this Rumi poem again:


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks

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