This morning I continued reading Merton's thoughts on alienation, and he described a situation I, too, have observed, particularly in teenagers, but at low moments in myself as well:
"There is a painful, sometimes paranoid sense of being always under observation, under judgment, for not fulfilling some role or other we have forgotten we were supposed to fill...nobody really has to look at us or judge us or despise us or hate us. Whether or not they do us this service, we are already there ahead of them. We are doing it for them. WE TRAIN OURSELVES OBEDIENTLY TO HATE OURSELVES SO MUCH THAT OUR ENEMIES NO LONGER HAVE TO." (The caps are his, not mine)
What intrigues me about this is that Merton believes that as artists and contemplatives we are uniquely capable of exorcising this kind of alienation on behalf of society, through the simple expedient of expressing our immediate response -- through art, poetry, music, or whatever gift we have -- "however unconscious, irrational, foolish, unacceptable, it may at first appear to be."
What Merton is calling for is a removal of those filters -- to which artists tend to be particularly sensitive, I believe -- that tell us -- on behalf of some internalized cultural imperative -- that we should pursue a particular style and eschew another; that the work that emerges out of a deep connection to soul has no value apart from its stylishness or perceived originality; that rather than choosing to pursue or exhibit that which speaks most clearly of what we find within or what we respond to, we must sort through based on what we imagine society will accept or reject, declaring that this work must be kept because "people will like it" and that work must be tossed because "it's not saleable."
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, her book on writing, calls this internal critic perfectionism. Perfectionism, she says, "is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life... will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force...keps us standing back or backing way from life, from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way... Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friend. What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here."
We, as artists, in choosing to tap honestly into the creative fount within and to allow our responses to flow freely onto page or canvas, allow those who view our work to see that it is possible to do that; that it is possible to go into the depths, to make messes, to be imperfect and honest and open and to emerge safely, even to emerge enlightened. We take that journey, engage with that spirit, and risk those failures, on behalf of all mankind, in much the same way that monastics live and pray on behalf of all mankind.
We have to learn the knack of free association," says Merton, "to let loose what is hidden in our depths, to expand rather than to condense prematurely. Rather than making an intellectual point and then devising a form to express it, we need rather to release the face that is sweating under the mask and let it sweat out in the open for a change, even though nobody else gives it a prize for special beauty or significance."
(Sounds to me like another plea for taking a picture rather than making one.)
"The office of the monk or the marginal person, the meditative person or the poet," he says in a later talk, "is to be a witness to life. And so I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine...and among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible.
And the deepest level of communication is not communication but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words...beyond speech... beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are."
So those struggles we face as we attempt to find a path, or to find our voice; to express our longings and discoveries along the journey; to give birth to that which labors within us to emerge into light, are not just our struggles but the struggles of all creation. Just as it says in Romans 8:22, "W know that all creation has been groaning together, as if in childbirth, until now, and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait and long for open recognition as sons through the deliverance of our bodies."
Yes, it's challenging to fight our way through the thicket of preconceived notions to what is good and true and longs to be expressed through us. But we continue to press forward on behalf of all humankind, in hope that we may dissolve the false divisions of the perceived, material world and reveal our underlying spiritual unity as children of God; that we may find and express the acceptance, love and grace that allows each of us to be fully human -- messy, imperfect, and fully ourselves.