What is your automatic, knee-jerk response to failure? Do you blame yourself for not being perfect? Do you try to deny what happened and hope nobody sees? Does a setback affect how you see yourself for the rest of the day (or even the rest of the week or month)?
It may surprise you, but some of our identity is formed through bad experiences. Everyone has had them. I’m not talking about “Oh shucks, I missed the bus” or “Phooey, I dropped my pencil” experiences. I’m referring to times when something or someone we really cared about was ripped out of our lives. Perhaps it was a dream that died—either a deep relationship or a loved creative project. Perhaps it was not winning an audition that was really important. Perhaps it was a piece of finished art that was stored in the basement and destroyed by a freak flood. Perhaps it was an Achilles tendon tear at the beginning of a dance career. We’ve either all had and have seen others sustain these serious wounds.
What happens after the wound?
Imagine a tree that has had a limb broken off, a limb that used to be beautiful and now is an ugly stub. Typically, two things can happen. First, the tree can form a knot at the place where the lost limb used to be.
Anyone looking at the tree will see the knot and know that there used to be a limb there. But knots are amazing. If you’ve ever worked with wood, you‘ll know that a knot is the hardest and toughest part of wood to saw through. What was initially a wound has become the strongest part.
But if a knot doesn’t form where a limb has fallen off, an open “wound” exposes the inside of the tree trunk to the elements and rot begins to form. The outside of the tree will look fine, and people will hardly notice a small black hole that leads into the core—the heart—of the tree. The rot will continue to invisibly spread inside the tree, and when a strong wind strikes, the tree trunk snaps and the entire tree dies.
How do we encourage knots and avoid rot?
Since all of us, especially in the arts, will at one time or another “lose a limb,” we must learn to deal with the very real wounds of life.
In the mid-1980s, I approached the famous composer Charles Strouse, who wrote Annie and Bye, Bye Birdie and many other Broadway blockbusters, about writing a major music theatre piece to premiere at the theatre where I was artistic director. We worked hard for eighteen months on the new piece, which included rehearsals and tryout performances in Detroit and in New York City. Then, with a full cast of experienced Broadway singing actors, we opened the new show at my theatre. It was the most devastating failure of my career—an amazingly gigantic flop.
How did I cope? Fortunately, I had a solid community around me—especially my wife—who supported me by not trying to fix the problem, but by simply staying beside me and listening to me as I processed what had happened. If it had happened years earlier, I would have gone into denial.
Many agree that denial is the quickest way for rot to grow. My old self would have denied that this failure had happened by refusing to look at it, let alone talk about it. I would have isolated myself emotionally in order to not feel the pain of my open wound. I would have said, “Just give me some time alone and I’ll get over it.” I might have looked okay on the outside, but the rot—the self-anger and shame of failure—would have eventually consumed me.
Community that functions well is the key to forming knots. It is in community that we learn from and are strengthened by our mistakes and wounds. But unless we grieve what’s happened, unless we deal with the pain of the loss, we will always be in danger of rot forming in our hearts. Good, honest community is essential to finding real healing after a wound. A community that listens is a place where we can bring our troubles and get honest help from trusted friends.
One of the first times I talked about trees as a metaphor for our lives during loss and crisis, my young friend Jenny came to me after the discussion and asked, “What does a person do if rot has already started?” Immediately, I thought of our neighbors in Michigan who decided to cut down a tree next to their home. It became a neighborhood event as we all gathered around to watch the giant tree fall. When it did, the earth shook.
But when the arborists tried to cut through the trunk with their enormous chain saws, they couldn’t do it. The saws jumped back and sparks flew. Unbeknownst to them, previous owners of the house had discovered rot in the trunk of that tree. They had called a tree surgeon who had scraped the rot out, and then filled the cavity with cement. The cemented tree was incredibly healthy and no one had any idea there had been previous rot. Not surprisingly, the cement was even stronger than a knot.
Can that happen with us today when we suffer a big wound, even when some rot has developed? The answer is yes! We do not need to walk through life with an identity of failure and shame. But the first step in the process of dumping our mistakes and our shame is to admit that these wounds are real.
The False Self
Artists often respond to the world’s pressures with poor-quality playacting. Remember the upside-down pyramid, which shows the way we feel when we have those real feelings of insecurity and fear? Our reaction to those feelings is often to try to change ourselves—become someone else—to avoid having the negative feelings again. We see that another person, who we think is succeeding, is not bothered by the insecurities we’re feeling, so we try to become that other person. This also leads to rot.
It is important to recognize good qualities and character in others, and to use those models to improve ourselves. But what I’m talking about here is not that. It’s when a person says, “I want to become someone else.” In other words, “What I am now is not good enough, so I will make up a new identity for myself.” This is closely tied to people-pleasing, when we choose to change our identity quickly like a chameleon, to match other peoples’ expectations. Sometimes we can negatively reflect back what we think we need to be and see in other people. If this continues, this eventually becomes a false self—and it becomes a problematic part of a person’s identity. The person operating out of the false self will never be truly comfortable, because the false self is like wearing shoes that are the wrong size. We keep walking, but every step hurts.
By the way, the initial start of much false identity starts from good desires. So please don’t beat yourself up as you explore whether or not you have some false-self stuff going on in your life.
There are many reasons why people, especially artists, adopt a false self. Abuse, isolation, experiencing rejection and trauma—each of these things can make us want to hide, desiring to become another person. So I’ll concentrate here on the special pressures that come from the arts world.
During my time with the Lyric Opera Company of Chicago, I decided I wanted to be like an internationally known conductor who worked there. I watched him closely. He traveled all over the world and conducted at the biggest theatres. I studied him and what he did and wanted to be like him. But then, after several years, I began to realize that he was not a person to be emulated—he certainly did not respect women, and he was regularly disrespectful to some of the singers. He was a bully, who crushed anyone who did not perform or react as he wanted. Initially, all I saw was his fame. I had adopted a false self—an image of what I thought I should look like. Fortunately, in large measure because of my community and my wonderful wife, I realized that I did not have to walk in the pretend shoes of that famous conductor. I was designed to have a unique identity. By walking more fully in my true self identity, I could have a very real sense of personal peace and find real fruitfulness in my life and my work.
Of course, the false self and true self are not black and white. I am not saying that one moment we can be completely “false” and the next moment completely “true.” But we seek to move towards the true self. Our true self is also something that can be hard to define and is never a good excuse for acting badly toward others.
The True Self
But the true self is who we are authentically designed to be. We develop our unique gifts to the best of our ability, and we work hard to succeed in the opportunities that come our way. But we do not need to become someone else—to pretend we’re perfect or always in control or the most beautiful. I am what I am, and there is incredible freedom in being good, and yet not needing to be perfect or always in control.
It’s actually very exhausting to act out of the false self. Striving to please other people takes a tremendous amount of energy. And it is continually frustrating (unstable pyramid) because we will never be as good at pretending we are someone else as we are at being ourselves.
But most of us find it difficult to recognize the false self because we may have been acting out of that identity for years. It has become a part of who we believe we are (usually at a subconscious level), and even though it may look like we’re performing well, inside it is still false.
Moving from the False Self to the True Self
It was God working through my community, and especially my wife, who carefully unwrapped the false picture I had of myself and revealed who I really am. Bit by bit, they showed me truth, and as my sight and walk improved, I was able to let go of my previous need to pretend I was someone else.
I wrote before about my desire to become a famous international conductor. Before my transformation from that to my true self, some aspects of my life felt as unstable as the upside-down pyramid. I had come to believe the lie that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t have a major international conducting career.
My wife and I lived in Europe for three years, and it was, on the whole, a wonderful experience. Although I found some production work, I did not conduct anything during the entire year that we lived in Italy. My wife’s dance career was thriving—she danced as a demi-soloist in a nine-month tour of Italy with Carla Fracci, one of the world’s prima ballerinas. I was pretending to myself and others that my international career was going well, but it was not.
For artists, getting meaningful artistic work is an area in which tree rot can be present. Being paid for what we do as artists is often difficult and the world tells us that we must be paid to prove we are really artists. The false self that we choose to assume almost always begins as a lie. The message of the lie is often “You will never be a success unless you do this.” What this is will vary, of course, but it usually involves achieving something—an Academy Award, being hired by the New York City Ballet, or being on the New York Times Best Seller list. Some people do have these things happen and I’m glad for them, but most do not. The lie is that a person must do something—must become something or someone—to prove to the world that he or she is valuable and significant. That is not to say that having big dreams is unhealthy. The problem comes when words like must or should or have to are attached to the dreams.
So how do we achieve transformation? By giving in to the relational quality of our art; by using our art for the good of others; by giving in to healthy relationships with others—relationships that are full of “love.”
Defining Unconditional Love as Part of Our Identity
The word love is complex. Some people connect the word to “feeling safe” or “belonging” or “affection.” Some people connect love to sex. No matter what your concept of love is, almost everyone seeks to be loved because it is a natural, built-in need of all human beings. Many people work very hard to get love and are sometimes extremely frustrated when the outcome does not provide them with the peace and joy and safety they yearned for.
But unconditional love is different. It is love that is not given on the “condition” of pleasing another person through any kind of performance. This love is freely given because the giver simply wants to do it, even though the recipient may not deserve it. One cannot, by definition, earn unconditional love—it is a gift.
Because artists’ lives are so controlled by constant striving to perform well, many of them have a hard time understanding how to receive something they have not earned. There is enormous freedom in being able to say, “someone loves me,” without needing to worry about doing something to keep earning their love.
I believe that living with a sense of healthy love is the most important goal of everyone’s life. Author David Benner explains love’s importance in his book Surrender to Love:
Love is the strongest force in the universe . . . only love has the power to transform persons . . . Only love can soften a hard heart. Only love can renew trust after it has been shattered. Only love can inspire acts of genuine self-sacrifice. Only love can free us from the tyrannizing effects of fear. There is nothing more important in life than learning to love and be loved.
How do we as artists lead lives where our primary identity is in being loved and giving love? In other words:
How will we respond to failure?
And how do we exchange fear of failure and the constant pressure of perfectionism for the safety and peace of love and still produce high-quality art?
Part of the answer is building communities that value this kind of love above all else. We will always fail as human beings, but where there is love there is also forgiveness. We can allow each other to make mistakes even as we strive to love each other more.
Another part of the answer, I believe, requires me to tell a more personal story about where I’ve experienced unconditional love. If you want to read about it, you can go here: How Does God Respond to Failure?
None of us want to fail, of course. We want to know what we’re meant to be doing and how we can succeed in our career. Is there a way to know what we should actually be doing with our lives? For an answer to this question, check out What is My Artistic Calling?
Photo credits: CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash; Kevin Grieve on Unsplash; Christina Calderon; Christina Calderon; Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash; Christina Calderon; Alex Iby on Unsplash; Clay Banks on Unsplash; Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash; Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash