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Painting by Victor Nizovtsev

We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure; our thoughts, imaginings and longings exposed to the light too much, too early and too often, our best qualities squeezed too soon into a world already awash with too easily articulated ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others. What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of our mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence. — David Whyte

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“The state needed religion to have an ideology that fused disobedience and sin; the church needed believers whom the state has trained in the virtues of obedience. Both used the institution of the family, whose function it was to train the child in obedience from the first moment it showed a will of its own. The self-will of the child had to be broken in order to prepare it for its proper functioning later on as a citizen.”

~ Erich Fromm

Our religion lies like a leaden blanket over our culture. Joy and play have taken to hiding from us. Our ideas of correctness and sin are still haunting us even as we try to be free and creative. Only when we get out to non-puritan cultures do we recognize our bondage.

Artists can’t access their creative juices in that state of mind. Creativity is playful. It’s fun. It revels in beauty. It’s sensual, it has a sense of joy in the physical universe. Artists have a bad reputation because they are often unruly and disobedient. They refuse to follow the rules laid down by the serious folk.

As someone raised by a couple of convinced Puritans who wanted to be artists, I see the conflict writ large in our culture. It was installed in all of us to some degree before we reached the age of reason, but rebellion is not the answer. Reaction against those rules somehow stays within the puritanical parameters. You don’t notice that until you live in a culture that doesn’t have that history.

Of course every culture has some element of repression of natural instincts but our culture got an extra strong dose of it. It remains invisible to us until we travel. Travel is something that challenges our sense of what’s basically human. It loosens our fixed ideas of norms if we’re open to learning. I do remember someone telling me to never go to Italy because it’s a “terrible place,” but it was too late to talk to me like that.

We were all preached at as children. We were told in no uncertain terms what was right and what was wrong by people who were sure they knew. Only when we were able to get away from them and put those ideas to the test did we realize we’d been sold a very limited program of how to be human.

Artists of any kind have to call their conditioning into question. I really believe my father couldn’t write because he was too captured by his religious upbringing. He had all the talent any storyteller has except for permission. His passion for stories was just that — a passion. It never left him. It was fundamental to who he was. He just could not allow himself to develop it. Watching someone defeated by unexamined cultural ideas is tragic, regardless how successful they are in the world.

Not achieving success on the world’s terms is nothing compared to failing to accomplish the soul’s mission in living. I regret to say that not only did he abandon his talent but he tried to prevent some of us from following an expressive path. His ideas were too small for him or for his children, setting up inevitable conflicts.

Growing away from all that was not a smooth process. It has been a lifetime project for me. It was a question of being crushed or of surviving as myself. I have a lot of sympathy for anyone caught up in a confining culture. Here on Medium there is every description of creative and artistic person imaginable. I’m here to say stay loose, stay learning. Proceed with playfulness and joy. Listen more to your feelings than the pronouncements of others.

Find beauty. Find pleasure. Find what you really love.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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