Amanda Barber

Stories, songs, and thoughts on life.

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Self-Expression? Phft!

27 March 2014

Believe it or not, I’m still thinking about all of the things that happened at the film festival now two weeks long past. Sigh. The most exciting part about the film festival was showing our film to receptive and appreciative audiences. It was fun to hear the audience roar with laughter over the funny parts, and (hopefully this doesn’t sound sadistic) cry over the sad ones. Afterwards, so many people told me how much the story meant to them and complimented me on my writing skills. (And acting skills, believe it or not.) I, like the humble person I am, did not struggle one ounce with pride. Being a little facetious there. No, any time I am placed in a situation where my talents are on full display and when people recognize them, I am constantly pounding down that slithering serpent of pride. It will pop up at the most inopportune moments. Thankfully, I had two loads of laundry, a messy room, a dirty bathroom and cooking to do when I got home. Nothing like household chores to take you down a notch or two! Anyway, as I was pondering my pride and my creative streak today, the topic of self-expression resurrected itself in my mind. Creative people like to express themselves. They like to do things no one has ever done before. They like to think themselves entirely unique. And, of course, like every dangerous idea, there is something quite true in all of that. It’s just not the whole picture.

Being creative or doing creative things is sort of like walking a tightrope. You can either fall off one side in a pile of self-absorbed narcissism, or you can trip off the other, running away from your creativity in fear that it might get out of hand. It’s quite difficult to actually stay on the rope, praising the Great Creator for the wonderfully, beautifully, quirckily-made person (you) He’s put on this earth and using the gifts He’s given you to glorify Him without stressing and straining over the results or getting all tied into knots when people don’t recognize them. This is the tension I face every day, and I suspect I’m not the only one. And so we come to the title of this post: Self-Expression? Phft!

Martha Graham

“I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of man–the landscape of his soul. I hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human can be.” (Martha Graham, Dancer) But this is what God says about self-expression, “A fool has no delight in understanding, but that his heart may express itself.” (Proverbs 18:2, King James 2000 Bible) Oh, dear. And ouch. So, how do I make sense of this? God obviously created people with personalities that are separate and distinct from each other. Does He then expect us to walk around with our mouths shut to avoid talking the way we particularly talk? I can’t imagine that’s the case since He explicitly commands us to speak His truth in love. After all, He gave us the very voice boxes that distinguish our voices from other voices. I think the crux of the issue is in subject matter and motivation.

Self-expression is a term that I’m really beginning to hate, since it describes the part of me that I don’t like at all. It’s this horrible urge to discover (which in the old use of the word basically meant to uncover or reveal) my inward parts so that everyone can admire me. It’s the essence of pride and self-delusion. Why? Because, apart from God, there is nothing in my heart worth admiring. It was a barren wasteland since birth until God spoke and a stream of living water sprang up in the desert. Expressing God, not myself, is my full-time job now. Or at least it ought to be. And we creative people need to get that and own it. If we make movies, write novels, take or paint beautiful pictures for the purpose of self-expression, than we’ve grandly missed the point.

As I’ve been thinking through this matter, six areas of practical application suggested themselves to me. I’ll list them here in the hopes that they might help someone beside myself. In a way, they’re sort of resolutions. Resolution-making is always a little frightening, because there’s a real possibility that you could fail to keep them. But you have to start somewhere. So, here goes:

1. Remain Contentedly Misunderstood

I’ve gone through my entire life feeling like an odd ball. I suppose many creative people feel just that way. The temptation for us, then, is to retreat into our inner sanctums and conduct a lofty pity party for ourselves, bemoaning the fact that no one understands us. So what! The fact is, I barely understand myself and neither do you. How can I possibly get upset when my friends and acquaintances fail to understand me? (Besides, God said our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked above all things. Who can know them? So, perhaps the fact that no one understands me is actually a blessing in disguise. But that’s a whole different blog post right there.) The point is, my job isn’t to help people understand me. My duty is to understand people. I love how St. Frances of Assisi put it, “O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand…” I will be misunderstood. That’s how life is. That’s okay. If I’m wrongly interpreted, God will set things to rights when the right time comes.

2. Express to Understand, Not the Other Way Around

This is closely related to the first resolution and many things I’ve already said. But it bears repeating. If my writing subtly slips into the habit of trying to reveal my “creative genius,” then I’ve stopped glorifying God and simply become another tortured artist looking for accolades. Tortured artists are really boring. Remember the Cannes film festival in Mr. Bean’s Holiday? Remember that awful movie that played for ever and ever at the end? Remember how bored the audience was?

Me and Cora

Me and Cora

Need I say more? My rule of thumb has been that I must write to understand, to think, to consider God’s truth from all sorts of angles. Then I need to get out of the way and show it to people in a way they can grasp and hang onto.

3. God Does Not Need Me

Yes, God wants to use me for His glory, and He gave me many talents that I can use for His glory, but He doesn’t need me or my abilities to accomplish His will. It is a privilege to serve Him. He’s doing me a favor by letting me serve Him. It’s not the other way around. In fact, as soon as you or I begin to think of ourselves as being indispensable to God, He’s quite likely to whisk us out of the way and put someone a little more humble in our place.

4. Let God Smash Your Passions to Bits

I recall my dad preaching a sermon called, “God Wants You, Not Your Talents.” It made quite an impact on me, and I’ve often thought about what he said. When God gifts us in some ways, we sometimes think the only ways we can serve Him are through those particular gifts. I have several talents. I’m a musician. I’m a writer. I guess I’m an actress. (Boy, that feels like such a weird thing to say.) But I’ve had to recognize that God may put me in a place where I can’t use any of those things. I might do more good for His Kingdom, someday, by flipping hamburgers or being a janitor at the local high school or locked in a vegetative state in a hospital bed. Am I okay with that? Are you? Those are hard questions for me to handle. But I have to. I believe I must be willing to take my passions—writing, music, filmmaking—place them on a virtual anvil, and smash them with a hammer if that’s what God wants.

5. Hold Onto Fashion With Very Loose Hands

This may seem like an odd thing to say, but it goes along with the whole self-expression bit. And we creative people can fall for it hook, line and sinker. After all, we wouldn’t want to be mistaken for the nondescript masses all around us, right? We, of the developed world, take our clothes very, very VERY seriously. Too seriously. We want to show that we aren’t conformists. So we spend exorbitant amounts of money and time on just the right clothes to prove it. Back in the ‘60s my dad’s hippy friends used to buy brand new jeans, cut ‘em up with scissors and send ‘em through the wash about twenty times and then put them on so they wouldn’t be mistaken for their materialistic parents. The nonsense continues and you can see it all around if you open up your eyes and look. In the grand scheme of things, fashion is an issue about the size of an eighth of an inch. Self-expression by way of fashion statement is a luxury of the developed world. Most of the world’s population is simply looking for something, anything, to cover their nakedness and a mouthful of food to soothe the hunger pangs that are always with them. If I could put aside my desire to be thought well-dressed long enough to seek after God the way those starving people look for food and clothing to shelter them from the elements, I would be much better off. And so, here is my next resolution within a resolution: You will from this time forth, never hear me make denigrating remarks about the floppy, denim jumper. From the way I’ve spoken and the way I’ve heard other Christians speak about less-than-fashionable clothing in the past, I get this feeling that if we were all suddenly transported to the Jordan River and stood beside John the Baptist, we’d all be a little embarrassed by his, ahem, odd clothing. And that’s sad. So, if a young lady can wear a denim jumper with thanksgiving and without pride, then God bless her. Perhaps more “conservative wear” is slightly behind the times. But just remember, our kids are going to look at our old pictures twenty years from now and laugh their heads off at our “fashionable” clothes anyway. It. Doesn’t. Matter.

And last but not least…

6. Resolved to Focus Less on Originality and More on Truth

Freedom comes when God is the prize and self gets forgotten entirely. In the same way, the best creativity happens when we’re not stressing and straining to say something creative. Creativity happens when we’re eating and breathing truth and trying our best make it known. Like C.S. Lewis said, “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”