Mar 262016
 

The dominant hues in the picture I painted of the young man on the phone were strength, perseverance, courage and determination. All he could see were dark pigments of failure, disappointment and weakness.

Sam (not his real name) was negotiating his senior year in high school. In junior high, he found himself in an unspeakably horrific hole. Nearly anything you wish to stuff into that hole was likely there tormenting him. He had lost himself, and I suspect, the world nearly lost him as well. Sometime during his sophomore year he realized he no longer wanted to be the person he saw himself becoming, so he clawed his way out of that hellhole. He rid himself of the enormous negative influences that kept him i015mprisoned, kicked numerous frightening habits, jettisoned most of his “friends,” and dedicated himself to his studies. Now, as a senior, he has good grades and is applying to several wonderful colleges.

I was so taken by him I told him I loved him, loved who he is and who he is becoming. He began to sob. I asked the source of the tears. “You’re the first person who ever told me they loved me.” That nearly ripped my heart out. But all Sam could see when he looked in the mirror was a failed young man who made countless, unforgivable mistakes. In his mind he feared that who he truly is, and always will be, is a failure.

In the figure above, the two squares highlighted by the arrows are—ready?—the exact same shade of gray. If you don’t believe me, put them side by side.

I find this a powerful metaphor. What if the two squares represent the differing portraits of Sam; that which I saw versus that to which Sam is witness? It’s the same person, but our views are so dramatically different…so incongruous…it’s hard to imagine we are picturing the same person.

So, from where do the two images of Sam—mine versus his—emerge?

I’m told John Keats once posited the heart is the only organ strong enough to educate the mind. As I reflect on my time with Sam, the palette with which I painted was of the heart. As we spoke, my heart broke open and the emerging masterpiece that was Sam simply appeared. He was a strong, courageous young man who had made many, forgivable mistakes. He is human after all.

The primary palette at Sam’s disposal was of the mind, tainted and dulled by the memory of failures, hurts and mistakes. As I painted, the canvas was not distorted by the foibles of his humanity. His was, so his brush was unable to capture the beauty and authenticity.

On another call a few weeks later, a young man announced he had a gun in his lap and intended to use it. From as far back as he could remember he was tormented physically, emotionally and sexually—from every quarter of his existence. The story was painful to hear—impossible to imagine as anyone’s reality. He felt worthless, hopeless and ready to end his unspeakable pain. I suggested the story he told emerged largely from the scars and hurts that filled his memory. I asked if a different story might emerge if he listened to his heart. When he glimpsed his world through his sensitive, complex and delicate heart, he tearfully told of his ability to change the lives of many other young people. Because of his deep understanding of the meaning of human existence, he could hold up a powerful mirror to others to help them see themselves in new ways. As our call ended, he happily put the gun away.

For too many, the canvas of our lives is distorted by memories of hurt, failure and scars. We are far more facile at opening our hearts and seeing the masterpiece that is the other, than we are at seeing our own. But if we had the facility to see the image others paint of us—that of the heart—we just might witness a masterpiece.

Jun 212014
 

I recall a video game, Tetrisphere, which was a variation of Tetris. In the game the player confronted a sphere covered by three-dimensional shapes. The game provided the player with a series of objects similar in shape to those covering the sphere. When you matched a piece with one on the outermost layer of the sphere, it would disappear and reveal a small portion of a level nearer the sphere’s core. The object was to eliminate enough pieces to open the core and release a friendly little robot.

One challenging aspect of the game is the sphere grows with time, making it more difficult for the player to reach the core before time runs out.

From the beginning, Tetrisphere struck me as a powerful metaphor for life. We are continually given experiences of life in the form of challenges, joys, suffering, love and confusion. Each piece of life—a different size, shape and color—is an invitation to fit it into our knowing, or unknowing. When we live these experiences with authenticity and vulnerability, the wisdom we gain tears away a small piece of who we may have thought we were to expose a slightly deeper level of our true selves. The goal of life, perhaps, is to tear away enough of the layers to release into the world the essence of who we are.

If, on the other hand, we allow the experiences of life, especially those that are painful and difficult, to add to the layers that separate us from the core of who we are, it becomes more difficult to discover who we were meant to be.

A call came from a young man who, in that moment, knew little of his self-worth. He had made a decision some months earlier that had extremely unpleasant consequences for loved ones in his life. Because of the pain he had caused, he felt himself a horrible, selfish person—new layers making it more difficult to see himself for who he truly is.

We know that even “poor” decisions are usually made in the best way we know how at the moment of choice. I asked, early in the conversation, if that was true for him. “No!” he insisted. “I knew better…I should never have made that choice.” He told me his heart felt dirty, sullen and hidden.

In the midst of the call, I began to wonder silently why we find it so difficult to offer ourselves the generosity and understanding we offer others. As our relationship developed I began to grasp the overpowering anxiety pervading his life at the time of his fateful decision. It was so strong it clouded his view of life and pointed him to the decision he eventually made. When I asked him about his panic and apprehension, he reluctantly admitted he did, indeed, feel a loss of control over his life. So I asked, if he were to show himself the kindness he would show another, would he be willing to admit that he was indeed a good and kind person, who, in a moment of confusion, made a choice he now rejected. There was a moment of silence after which he said quietly, “Maybe so.” He paused for a moment longer, and then he asked, “Do you think the pain I am feeling is my heart trying to find its way back into the world?”

Even as I write these words, tears well up. I could do nothing in the moments that followed but be in awe of the profundity of his insight. It was one more of life’s experience pointing him to the magnificence of who he is behind the layers of who he is not.