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 imprisoned, 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.