A reader sends an email containing a contemptuous criticism. It happens. He says that, in my column, I’m always talking about myself.
Ever been confronted by someone whose intention it is to deliver a contemptuous criticism, and, unbeknownst and unwitting, he ends up delivering a sublime compliment?
And I think of Zan Holmes. Dr. Holmes was my homiletics professor in seminary. He was a guest professor, and I will always count myself lucky I was crossing that bridge when he happened to be standing upon it. He was a brilliant preacher. And I remember the day he pressed ‘pause’ on the video playback of me preaching, my image frozen in some unlovely gape, Holmes’ voice booming from the back of the classroom: “Steven! God didn’t call your impersonation of Billy Graham to preach! God called you!”
My cheeks still flush with the memory.
Yep. Whatever else I’m trying to achieve in a given piece of writing – or in my old days as a preacher – you can bet that somewhere in there I’m talking about myself. Who else would I be talking about?
Once, when I was serving the institutional church as an Episcopal priest, an L.O.L. (that’s clergy ‘church talk’ for “little ol’ lady”) brought me a penciled note someone had dropped into the alms basin (that’s “collection plate” for you Protestants.) The note said simply, “You must be the chief of sinners, because you know our sins so well.”
I decided it was the finest compliment I would ever receive as a Christian preacher. And not just because the author was correct. More because I’m always surprised and flattered when someone really sees and understands who I am and why I do what I do.
So it is with any artist, craftsman, or leader worth those titles. Statesman, orators, writers, painters, songwriters, sculptors, theatre players, comedians, makers of fine furniture, therapists, home builders, architects, coaches, teachers – an authentic vocation is authentic precisely because it reflects us authentically.
If you look closely at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, you will see that Michelangelo is talking about himself.
Yep, that’s me in these columns. My critical thinking, my way of seeing the world based on my experiences of that world. What else could it be? Ironically affirming of my critic to notice that.
It’s that way with you, too. No way, ultimately, to engage the world around you and not reveal yourself. Even the most shy, quiet, and unassuming amongst us leaves a footprint of self. You just have to pay attention and look for the cues.
The way you raise your children is a kind of “talking about yourself.” It speaks of your love for them. And your ambivalence. (All parents have both.) It speaks of your acculturation. It will reveal every strength of your character and the places you are lacking or absent character. Your childrearing practices often tell the story of emotional wounds from your past that you are hoping to redeem. Or, if you are bent on denying those wounds, then you will tell the story of your past by repeating similar injustices with your children. But, either way, it will be you of whom your actions speak.
The way you relate to your partner/spouse – again, your love and your ambivalence – is a kind of “talking about yourself.” Some of the time you are engaging the whole, separate person who is your beloved. But, sooner or later, we find ourselves behaving as if we are engaging our mate, when it fact we have turned our mate into a diary upon whose pages we write the story of our childhood past, our hopes for self, and our disappointments in self.
It’s nearly cliché the way we tend to marry folks that sooner or later exhibit the behavior and energy reminding us of a conflicted or painful part of our childhood. I’ve come to decide that marriage is designed to do this. It’s terribly uncomfortable, but it provides an opportunity to resolve or even heal developmental inertia and emotional injuries. That is, if people are willing to stay and bear the discomfort.
True vocation is a kind of “talking about yourself.” Because true vocation means finding and exercising your passions, whether or not you are lucky enough to get paid for it. And it’s not possible to let your passions out into the world without the world hearing the story of YOU. What matters to you. What moves you. What provides meaning, hope, and purpose.
Authenticity is not narcissism or self-centeredness. It is a fluid transparency of self in all we do and with all whom we love.
And, I said all that because of my passion for this great paradox:
When we share ourselves authentically, those with whom we share find themselves confronted with an invitation to be themselves, too. They find their authentic story in the sharing of our own.
It shouldn’t surprise us. The human experience is, in the end, common. Ordinary. Very few of us have extraordinary stories.
I surely don’t.
(Steven Kalas is an Episcopal priest, an author and a therapist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)