I subscribe to a really cool artist e-newsletter put out twice weekly by painter Robert Genn. Although it’s geared toward painting, I find good insight that transfers well to any artistic endeavor.
You can view the newsletter and see the article I’m writing about today here:
Artist for Life
We had dinner with friends last night. We got to talking about our almost-adult children and the choices they were making–some good, some questionable. “Why don’t they listen to us? We have such great advice!”
I finally pointed out that they probably shouldn’t take our advice and do what we say. What we see as “stupid choices” or “lack of insight” is simply a young person starting to make their own way through the world.
Sometimes what looks like stubbornness or lack of motivation is their good decision about something, something we don’t have the full story on yet. For example, a friend kept bugging her child about not hanging out with an old friend anymore. She was mortified when she finally learned the reason. The old friend had started drinking heavily. And her child didn’t want to be around that. What looked like ornery teen behavior was actually a very young person struggling to make a good decision on their own.
I’m actually better at keeping this balance with my kids than my friends, sometimes. I talked about my own tendency to jump in and help other people, especially younger folks the past few years who were in a jam. I was really supportive and encouraging. But eventually things ended badly and we went our separate ways.
“Why did you get involved?” my friend asked.
I thought hard about this one.
Maybe it was because I felt there was something special about each of them. They all had energy and talent and inner beauty. They had all hit a major obstacle in their path. And I thought I could help them through it.
“I guess they reminded me of ME at that age,” I explained. “And I kept thinking, ‘If only I’d had someone older and wiser to tell me what was going on, to encourage me to believe in myself, to tell me what’s what, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get to where I am now.”
But it doesn’t work that way, does it?
Just like Robert Genn’s gallery-owner friend, and just like us, when we recognize our true role of parents (or mentor, or gallery owner), it’s not our role to smooth the way or eliminate obstacles. We can’t save them time, or effort, or angst, or sorrow.
I said, “I’ve learned you can’t help someone take shortcuts on their journey through life.”
“Write that down!!” my friend said.
“They either have a fire in their belly to get somewhere–to be a real artist, to travel, to achieve their goals, to get what they want in life–or they don’t.”
“Write that down, too!” my friend said.
So I did. And I am.
You can’t feed another person’s fire, not for very long anyway. They have to learn to feed it themselves. Eventually, they may even realize it’s the wrong fire to feed. Maybe they’re supposed to be doing something else entirely.
Because no one really knows what’s in the heart and soul of another person. Because it’s their life, their journey, their process.
So how can you help someone who “needs” help, without mucking it up for them and you?
You can listen.
You can put things into prospective occasionally. Ask a probing question once in awhile. Let them know you care. And that you believe they will figure it out. Or not. And that that’s okay, too.
And you can listen. (Yes, I know I said that twice. I meant to!)
In hindsight, the minute I stopped listening and started advising, everything in those relationships went south. The minute I started telling my young friends, and my daughter what I thought they should do, I was actually telling them I didn’t believe they could figure it out for themselves.
Okay, reality check. Does this insight really mean I’m going to stop advising people? Nah. I really like telling people what I think they should do.
I’ve learned you can only help people so far, and then they must help themselves.
But I truly believe that my odd, convoluted, meandering path through life is truly what brought me to this place in my art and my life.
And that means I really have to leave others to their own journey to do the same.
P.S. I think that’s why this blog has become so important to me. It’s a way of sharing what I’ve learned, or what I hope to learn, in a way that is not obtrusive or hectoring to other people. You can read it, enjoy it and take away what you will from it.
Or not. It’s your journey. It’s all okay.