Empowered Change

Survival vs. Self-Expression

by Linda Maree

Article 5 in our series ETAIN
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Linda Maree is a freelance writer, editor and is the creator of Etain Workshops®. For information on workshops and presentations eMail:
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E M P O W E R E D  C H A N G E

Survival vs. Self-Expression

When duty is pleasant, and pleasure is the fulfillment of duty, then they lose their separateness and oppositeness.

—Abraham Maslow

One evening, I was downtown visiting some art galleries and noticed that in each one, alongside the work of professional artists, there were paintings, sculptures and other pieces created by area high school students. The talent that was shown by these young artists was impressive. In fact, one of the student pieces, a computer-generated collage, was among my favorites of the evening. Alongside each piece of student artwork there was a brief bio of the student. One young artist stated in her bio that art "is the reason I get up every morning." I thought this was a wonderful statement of purpose and passion: For this young woman, art was her life. The bio went on to say that she planned to go to college and major in dental hygiene with, perhaps, a minor in art.

I stood before the powerful and incredibly beautiful paintings this gifted young artist had created and wondered why, with the talent she had and the passion she felt for her art, would she not give herself fully to her soul's desire to create? The answer, it would seem, is survival. Choosing a career path that offers a sense of security while giving scant attention to our seemingly more irrational and frivolous passion for creativity seems, to many, to be the ideal compromise. After all, you have to eat; you have to pay the rent. After you take care of your responsibilities then you can be creative. I can hear her parents urging her to think logically - very few artists actually support themselves with their art. Get a real job. Art can always be a hobby.

According to statistics, survival and self-expression seem to be conflicting forces. Research indicates that the more affluent one's parents are, the more one's creativity is encouraged. Less affluent parents are more likely to foster conformity in their children. (Melvin Kohn, 1977) From my own perspective and interpretation of this statement, it would seem that for many, conformity is equated with a sense of safety and security, and thus, survival. Follow the rules, we are told, and everything will work out; you will be taken care of.

As put forth in Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, there is indeed a struggle. According to his theory, human beings cannot achieve self-actualization until survival needs are met. At first glance this seems to make sense - and maybe even after careful scrutiny, it will still make sense. But what if it doesn't have to be that way? What if, in truth, most of us have simply seen no other way and, therefore, continue to live as if this were so.

As a teen, I wanted nothing more than to create - paintings, sculptures, poems, short stories. My secret wishes, desires, fantasies were penned into journals stacked in a dark corner of my closet. In these journals were recorded my dreams of exploring the world, meeting people from various cultures, and experiencing life while writing, painting, and artistically documenting my experiences. In high school, my poems and sketches appeared in our school's twice-yearly publication of art and creative writing. One of them even caused a controversy and was officially banned from publication by the principal because it was, as he termed it, too "dark." One of my paintings was chosen to be in a show, held at a nearby college, featuring the artistry of area high school students. My poetry was acknowledged by fellow students, and my short stories were praised by the creative writing teacher who encouraged me to keep writing. That was the only encouragement I got.

I wish I could say that, at that time, I wanted nothing more than to pursue my dreams of becoming an artist and a writer. I wanted that, yes, but bigger than my passion was the fear that I wouldn't be able to take care of myself, and so, without parental support and without the necessary financial means, my plans for school and travel were put on hold - temporarily, just for a year, until I could save up some money. Not once in this process did someone say to me, "Follow your dream no matter what it takes. Don't be afraid of failure."What I heard was, "Don't take chances, you might get hurt. You might fail."

I began working as a teller in a local bank, bought a car and very quickly found myself in a place familiar to most Americans - in debt. I also began to get comfortable with the idea of a weekly paycheck. It was great to have ready cash for movies, shopping, and dancing on the weekends with my friends. School and world travel began to seem less and less important to me.

Sometime during that year, as I let the light of passion grow dim, I decided to burn all of my journals, poems and short stories, as well as my artwork. It was simply too painful to have this stuff around to remind me of what I was missing. I watched almost all of my creative endeavors go up in smoke, and I don't remember shedding a tear. The large acrylic-painted canvas that had been so proudly displayed at the student art show was now being used as a tarp on my dad's truck. I don't blame him - if I didn't value the piece why should he? As I look back, I wonder: why is it that no one was appalled by what I had done? Why didn't anyone try to stop me? I turned my back on my creative self casually and without pretense or ceremony. No one noticed; no one mourned the loss. That day, something inside of me that had once burned so brightly began to wither and die a slow and painful death. It would be over 20 years before I could feel the pain acutely enough to do anything about it.

I'm sure my story is not unique and, sadly, it is not a story from the past. Rather, it is repeated daily in homes, schools, and businesses across the country. Young adults are encouraged, not to follow their bliss, but to get the skills they will need to find and keep a job, preferably one with "security"that pays well. Survive at all costs is the message we send. But what about happiness? What about that maxim given to us so eloquently centuries ago: "To thine own self be true"? (William Shakespeare) What about that feeling of aliveness that we get when we are doing something we love? Why does it have to be either/or? Our children need to know how to survive. They also need to know how to live. And so do we.

ACTION: Adolescence is a time of radical change in most of our lives, but everyone, regardless of age, experiences both dramatic as well as subtle change during the course of our day-to-day activities. Even if we have no desire to write or paint or "create"in the narrow sense of that word, we are all, by our very nature as human beings, artists of our own lives. To be true to oneself, it is necessary to be in touch with and embracing of our passion - that creative force that gives us life.

There are many methods we can use to come to this sort of self-awareness, but one of the most effective, I've found, for gaining clarity and focus is "freewriting." Freewriting is a method I learned in my college freshman composition class to jump-start the writing process. I have found it invaluable for stirring creative energies and helping me to get in touch with my true, authentic self.

Freewriting is easy, and you don't have to be a writer to do it. It simply involves filling a sheet of paper with thoughts as they occur - sometimes seemingly disconnected and totally divorced from the matter at hand. Starting at the top left hand corner of a clean sheet of paper, begin writing and don't stop until you have reached the very bottom of the page and can write no more. Once your pen or pencil has begun to move, don't stop to think about what you are writing, or worry about punctuation, spelling, or coherency. Don't be concerned that what you are writing is worthwhile. It is. What happens is that somewhere along the way, you will subconsciously acknowledge where you are, who you are, and what you really want in life.

When I am in the midst of, or even contemplating, a major transition in my life, I "freewrite" daily. Often it can take time for buried desires, interests, and ideas to make their way to the surface; other times they seem to bubble forth immediately. Most of the time, a page a day (minimum) is sufficient, but sometimes I find I can't stop with one page and at those times I write until the flow stops naturally. When that happens I may fill many sheets, and find that the creative insights I am seeking are almost always hidden in the words scribbled on those pages.

Linda Maree

Writer and Editor

© Linda Maree 2001
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Editor's note:

Linda's Etain series offers an opportunity for Pathfinders participants to share their successes at meeting life challenges. The concept of Etain, the hero and heroine that is woven through the stories of all cultures, is the journey we all travel.

We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.

© dwij 2001
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