Jim Allman, co-founder of Memphis arts community Continuum, joins us again this week for part II of How I’m Damned & What I’m Doing About It.
If you missed part I, it’s right here.
Let me lie down in peace and let me rise up again in peace. – Krias Shema
A Second Look
There are many who experience an identity that doesn’t easily reconcile and often appears at odds with itself. Take for instance the protagonist in Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev”. An artist in an orthodox Jewish home overseen by a zealous, over bearing and un-approving father, Asher is also the pupil of an atheist painter. A damned identity, if I’ve ever seen one.
But I, too, have found a not too dissimilar reality being a Christian poet in a culture that little approves of art and as an adherent of a faith tradition that doesn’t much value it, either. Moreover in the world of art, orthodoxy of any kind is often shunned. In the book Asher expresses this feeling of un-acceptance by tucking his payos, or side-curls (a symbol of his orthodox belief), back behind his ears to hide them from his artist peers. Asher is perpetually asked to compromise his dearest and most essential self.
Note to Self
But immediately following the side-curl episode, his mentor, Jacob Kahn, tells him:
You did that because you were ashamed. You did that because wearing payos did not fit your idea of an artist…. You want to cut off your payos, go ahead. But do not do it because you think it will make you more acceptable as an artist.
Jacob explains to Asher that anything done from a place of shame or cowardice is a type of “whoring”, not wholeness. In this he expresses a value in the total individual, even if not quite understood or approved in all of its constituent parts.
This is the crux; redemption has always been about wholeness rather than acceptance, and there is a kind of damnation in all concession created out of shame. Shame comes when I accept that somehow who I am is a waste of time or useless or without value here—that my worth is for that which I was not made.
Is this Exile?
Of course this suggests the necessity of a self-knowledge that is often uncomfortable, even dangerous. Despite what I thought of myself in junior high with all of the confidence in the world, I was not a burgeoning Wall Street mogul. I must ask, “What defines me in such a way that is beyond compromise?” I would not put at risk the relationship with my father to be a stock-broker not because being a stock-broker is bad or wrong, but because it is not who I am. I am a poet. I am a person of belief. I cannot stop writing. I cannot stop praying. All of which requires a conscious prioritizing of life. I do not have time for some things. These are often the things others greatly regard, which opens the door for scorn and dismissal. At times I appear insensitive, selfish, or uncaring, but it is not so.
Instead, it is an acknowledgment of a unique vocation all the more significant because it may well be left undone without my whole-hearted embrace. As Asher says late in the book contemplating whether or not to finish his masterwork, a crucifixion which will ultimately ostracize him from his family and community, “I [cannot] be the whore to my own existence.” He keeps painting. He keeps praying, knowing full well the rejection surely to follow.
A rejection that leads to exile is a powerful temptation to acquiesce to a fractional existence; I have been tempted many times myself. It is a genuine risk. After all both art and faith embody traditions of isolation—the desert mystic and the misunderstood artist, for instance.
But consider for a moment the wisdom of one of those mystics, the 20th century Trapist Monk, Thomas Merton:
To put it better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity. We can evade this responsibility by playing with masks, and this pleases us because it can appear at times to be a free and creative way of living. It is quite easy, it seems, to please everyone. But in the long run the cost and the sorrow come very high.
In the end, Asher finds himself willing to meet headlong the tragic possibility of his exile; precisely, because he realizes that he is already alone—bifurcated into the simulacra of self, reproduced merely for the company of the moment. In his many attempts to please everyone, he has found himself utterly unknown, as a kind of self uncreating the self into a falsehood.
All that is left to him is an embrace of the truth of his own totality—a final reconciliation of artist and devout Jew. In this way risk is a tutor, which helps us weigh correctly the true self and its treasured convictions, and prepares us to accept whatever outcome may befall us. As Merton says, it is a “working out [of] our salvation…a labor that requires sacrifice and anguish, risk and many tears.”
You’re Never Alone
But listen for a moment to the Devil in that Sting song. “You’re not alone; you’re never alone,” he croons. Perhaps we all just travel incognito believing ourselves the only damned apparitions around—with all of us wandering in the same state of diminishment, then, perhaps not so alone, after all. At least, that’s what I have found to be true.
Both art and faith do have their rich heritages of community, even alongside the hermetic: consider the monastery or the Société Anonyme of the French Impressionists. What I have discovered is that enclaves do exist centered around mutual wholeness, and that there are hurting others—many hurting others—desperate for the same salve.
I have sought out these spaces, but at times there is a need to carve them out of the brink ourselves. In just a few short years of doing so with a small arts community called the Continuum, I have seen two like-minded individuals multiply into over a dozen. I recall being convinced, when we began, that we were the only two out there.
These dozen, or so, are only the tip of the iceberg. The Continuum is now affiliated with an international community who center their lives around the liminal edge of art and faith commitment. These have become my truest friends. The only requirement has been a committed and unflinching acceptance of the vocation and truth of our own identity.
Along the way there is both elation and despair; I can attest. There is a lying down and a rising up again. There is death and resurrection. But there is real value in the fractional-self annealed and a refusal of masks. It is a value found in integrity; for it is a waste of time and a shame to be anything else. Perhaps this pain and risk seems overly daunting, but they exist to galvanize us to action and ready us for our own redemption. The story of Asher Lev ends with him in exile, but it also ended with both he and I connected and whole again and at peace, together.
What masks do you feel compelled to wear, what harm have they caused and what’s the next step?