personal reflections

You Don’t Even Have to Believe In Your Work

Last week I finished reading Mark Nepo’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen: Staying Close to What Is Sacred. A gorgeous book. His The Exquisite Risk: Daring to Live an Authentic Life was one of my favourite books in 2013.

Reading for me is about growth. It stretches my mind. It makes new connections or strengthens my understanding. And sometimes there will be one particular excerpt that goes “This!” to describe perfectly where I am in my life at that moment.

That moment came when I was reading the Notes at the end of the book – attributions to the epigraphs and poems Mark included throughout the book. I found myself reading through these Notes – when normally I might have simply arrived at these and closed the pages, considering the book finished. I’m so glad I followed the trail to read on. This is what I discovered:

In Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (New York: Random House), p 264. De Mille tells the following story: “The greatest thing [Martha] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma!, when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda. I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

“Martha said to me, very quietly, ‘There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open… No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.'”

I can relate to the burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I can be. Living amongst the question if I am actually any good at all. (And what if I’m not, when I’ve committed to this path? Oh dear.) The wisdom that my expression is unique. (Stop comparing myself to others. They are doing their unique thing, I am doing my unique thing.) That it is not my business to determine how good it is. (Stop living in other people’s business – of what they think of me.) And can it be really true that I don’t have to believe in myself, but that I can to keep myself open and keep on marching with the blessed unrest?

I have been in a significant life transition as I shift away from the corporate world to solopreneurship. I use the Work of Byron Katie as a practice to work with my fears and my limiting beliefs – and am so grateful for that practice. And still, underneath it all, is this ribbon of doubt that grabs my breath in my throat – if I’m actually any good at all.

So my journey now is to trust the expression that is unique me. That somehow I found this path of circle work, of connection, of participatory and collaborative design, of hosting and harvesting conversations that matter. That it is my business to discover and keep what is mine clearly and directly and to keep the channel open. Like Mary Oliver writes, I do not have to be good, I only have to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. ~ Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

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