Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Art of Self-Deception

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous blog that I took up painting about 12 months ago. Not glossing the dunny door or the ceiling but art type painting. The word ‘type’ is deliberate as what I do is not yet what I would call art. It has been 50 years since I last picked up a paint brush or pencil with any real purpose. The last time was when I was 14 and my art teacher suggested I study science and gave me 5% for my art exam, which was given for just turning up.

Well, last Sunday, I had an interesting and somewhat unnerving experience. My better half had given me, for my birthday, a place in an art workshop with a very well-accomplished artist. Let me say that his is also a really nice person, enthusiastic, relaxed, fun and very helpful. There were about 12 of us there to learn how to paint pandanus trees. As we started our first exercise it became clear that my colleagues were mostly quite experienced at drawing and painting and that I was not.

 At the same time, I got off to a bad start, probably because I was anxious but not aware of it and made some rather hurried decisions on the canvas. The situation worsened and I found myself fighting off feelings of panic and succumbing to a sense of misery and doom. I bumbled along until lunch and then packed up my things with the intention of escaping. However, something made me just go and sit in my car and eat my lunch, as I reflected on what was happening. I wanted to leave but the fact that the workshop was a present and that explaining myself would be be complicated forced me to resist the temptation for flight.

After a lot of muddled thinking and a rather weak sense of determination I went back and finished the workshop. I’m still working on what I produced that day and it is coming along well. I certainly learned a lot about painting technique: when I let myself.

It occurred to me that I was having a flash back, a regression, to that bad old day when I felt similarly overwhelmed and out of my depth, helpless and completely at a loss of what to do as a student. It’s interesting to remember how it feels to be totally lacking in the resources necessary to recover from a situation. In this case it was a complete lack of technique or skill that would enable me to make any sense of the concepts being presented. This was an uncommon feeling for someone who is used to being on top of his game, master of what he does.

This experience was a poignant reminder of how our experience can shape us and define what we do, quite unconsciously. It demonstrates how we can limit ourselves without knowing it and end up feeling quite helpless, devoid of any idea about how to get out of our situation.

There are many people, mostly with conservative minds, who believe that people deserve what they get. They think that people who are poor, disadvantaged, chronically unemployed or otherwise not functioning well in our society should take control of their situation, to pull up their socks. The hard right think that our place in society is pre-determined. There are those born to lead and those born to be subservient.

My experience reminded me that our past our circumstances, our situation, can shape us in important ways. It can either enable us to believe anything is possible or that nothing is possible. It is not that easy to develop an awareness of the former if we have never had the role models, the learning that gives us the confidence to achieve, to raise ourselves up from the situation we are in.

For example, is well researched that kids who are raised in houses where reading is valued and encouraged do better at schools than kids in impoverished environments. We know that education is the biggest determinant of the level of social advantage or disadvantage, on any social dimension that one wants to choose. It is impossible to make choices when the options are out of awareness.

I guess this is a call for compassion: to understand that people are not necessarily behaving as they do completely out of choice. My experience tells me that all human behaviour serves a purpose. We may not understand why someone does something that appears to be a poor choice but you can rest assured that, at the time, it made sense to them. Knowing this means that we are more in a position to help them than if we just sit back in confusion or, more commonly, anger and rationalise why we should not help.

I think compassion has become a casualty of our obsession with self.