If you’re reading this post you probably have an online profile – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. Most of us are connected to the online world in some way. These days it’s easy, and often necessary, to establish an online presence, and it’s tempting to project any kind of image we wish. Most of us probably know that many employers now check into someone’s online image before they consider hiring them, and to paraphrase Jon Acuff this should lead us to “stop being an idiot online.” With this ability to create a cyber personality it’s now commonplace for us to carefully craft our images to only show the best, the highlights. Selfies have morphed from spontaneous snapshots into opportunities to showcase our personal style, complete with intentionally placed props and carefully selected backdrops. We go to great lengths to write bios that make our lives sound interesting and inspiring. It’s as if we are all completed works of art finally ready to be on display at the local gallery. In the same way an artist spends hours planning, painting, and strategically placing each piece, we meticulously present ourselves online in such a way to tell only the parts of the story we want told.
We are the writers of our own stories, right?
A common theme floating around the internet is the idea of storytelling. Look around for a few and you’ll learn we each have a story to tell and we are the only ones able to tell it, or something to that effect. I agree with this to a degree. We are part of a larger story and we each have a role to play, but we are not the writers of our own stories. Sure, we make our own daily decisions and reactions, but there are many aspects of our lives we do not, cannot control. We can do our best to take care of our bodies, but sometimes cancer still finds us. We can pursue our dream career, but sometimes the success we seek eludes us. We can fight with all our strength to save a marriage, but we cannot force the other person to stay. No matter how it takes shape in your life there is bound to be a plot twist, an unexpected turn in the narrative. Fight as we may there are times when the story simply will not follow our marching orders. Matt, you’re depressing me, what’s your point?
There is beauty to be noticed while the work is still in progress.
At the right of the page you’ll see a photograph of three paintings. They are works in progress. They may not ever receive another brush stroke, but they are still works in progress. How is this so? Well, I can say this because they are my paintings and not one of them matches the vision I originally had for it. But I no longer intend to add paint to any of these canvasses. They are works in progress.
Whenever I’m commissioned to paint a new work I usually have a finish line I must reach before I can consider the painting complete. Customers have expectations. But when I begin a new work of my own choosing I am not constrained by the same expectations or obligations. I am still learning this fact. I used to drive myself mad with expectations. I would set out to paint a piece with a specific vision in mind, but as the paint accumulated on the canvas I would find myself in awe of some fantastic and unexpected details. Unfortunately I would often cover over these details because they did not fit the story, they weren’t a part of my vision. It was sometimes painful to eliminate these details, and many times I would completely give up on a work once I had covered over them. Suddenly something beautiful was missing and my passion for that particular story would fade.
Somewhere along the way I began to learn to appreciate these beautiful details, even when I’m working on a commissioned piece. I still paint with a particular vision in mind, but as I stand before the canvas I now view the process much like watching a story unfold. I frequently step back to look at the composition as a whole, but I alsolean in to see the details. Sometimes I notice these ‘happy accidents’ that inspire me to take an entirely different direction with the story, other times I realize the story as it stands is beautiful. It’s in those times I find myself calling my wife to come look and see, and she usually confirms the story is ready to be told.
Are we telling our stories as they truly are or as we wish them to be?
I’ve come to truly appreciate some of the unplanned details in my paintings. A misplaced brush stroke, an unwanted smudge or smear, a shaky hand, a splash of the ‘wrong’ color. These accidents can lead to unexpected beauty. I wonder how much beauty our own life’s story might be missing because we are striving so hard to tell the ‘perfect’ story. And I wonder how much more valuable might our stories be to others if they weren’t so polished, so edited. Am I proposing we need to unashamedly air all our dirty laundry for the sake of storytelling? No. Sometimes we mess up and should be ashamed. Sometimes there are details of our lives that don’t need to be made public because they are private in nature.
While we do need to step back and look at the overall beauty of our story we also need to lean in and recognize the beauty in the details. We are so quick to edit out the splatters and mistakes, but these may be the details our stories need. These minor and undesirable details may be more significant than we realize. So, let’s take a long, hard look at our stories. Are we crafting false images and writing fake stories because we think that’s what everyone else wants from us?
I hope we can learn to notice the beauty of a work in progress and be willing to share the unpolished versions of ourselves, because that might just be the story we’re meant to tell.