Editor’s note: The following entry is from a talk I recently gave at my high school alma mater. I was both surprised an honored when I was asked to speak there, and while I may never know if my words meant much to the hundreds of faces staring back at me, I considered it a privilege to share some thoughts. It was also a timely opportunity for me, as I continue to wrestle with what it means to make my life my greatest artistic work.
It’s odd. It is odd coming back to a place that is familiar and yet so different. Bethany is different; I am different, but regardless, I consider it a privilege to be back here.
Let me introduce myself a bit. My name is Rafael Barahona, and I am the owner of R3 Design, a small business specializing in graphic design, logo design, print design and web design. I have a studio in downtown Goshen. Over the past decade though, I have been many things, and done many things. I have been a volunteer worker in a food bank, a touring musician, an ENL collaborator, a Spanish teacher, an office administrator, a communications specialist, a businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. Today, in addition to my roles at home, in the professional realm, I consider myself a “creative consultant.”
I have recently come across another label, though, which I am a pretty big fan of. I am a ¹”multipotentialite.” Any guesses as to what this means?
A multipotentialite is someone with interest and capacity in many different areas or disciplines. This is actually a very countercultural thing to be. Think about it; from the time we are barely able to write or even talk, (ages 3-5) adults begin asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question is benign in its intention, kind of a conversation starter, but it is actually the beginnings of a continual reinforcement of a cultural paradigm. The question implies a single identity.
This is further enforced as we develop, as we choose colleges and majors, and ultimately careers. The cultural expectation that we all have one thing we are good at, one thing we should do, be passionate about, etc. Even in the church, we talk about our “calling.” Our one calling. Now this may be true for some, but I challenge the notion that every person has one destiny when it comes to what they do for a living. Perhaps I am living proof.
One things that I like about being a multipotentialite, is that I have a unique role to play in society, but more that that I have three “superpowers”:
– Idea synthesis (seeing and applying connections with different ideas)
– Rapid learning (devouring a new topic or area of interest)
– Adaptability (being able to function effectively in a variety of circumstances)
These traits have propelled me in the various directions I have seen my life take, but there are some common threads. I want to talk to you today about two specifically. Art and Faith.
At many different points I have been called and have identified myself as a artist. Ever since I was a kid, I always loved art. Most kids do. I was pretty good at drawing and coloring, and my mom still has some of my scribblings and scrawlings buried away in storage.
But as I got older, I began to have an embattled relationship with this label. One reason, like a true multipotentialite, is because I had a lot of other interests. Another is because of societal expectations and perceptions. We have all heard the term “starving artist.” Where does this comes from? This is not exactly a positive idea or a very encouraging one. LIkewise, many are familiar with the notion that artists are scatterbrained or disorganized? Again, not very positive. ²”There is in fact a great segment of our society that is dismissive of the artist, that doesn’t see that as a legitimate career, forgetting that some of the most powerful and appreciated human experiences were born from art works.”
Being an artist can mean many different things but as an identity, I now ultimately find it limiting. I may not call myself an artist, but what is true however, is that I am creative. I have brought some measure of creativity to all of the different “jobs” I have had. I am a creative person. I believe this, other people have told me this, and for a long time, I thought is made me special.
This, however, is flawed logic. This does not make me special. Why? Because we ALL creative.
When it comes to creativity, there are some common notions and associations that are made with it.
- traditional art (ink, paint, etc)
- music and dancing
- poetry and writingBut what about?
- computer coding
I previously mentioned that I myself viewed creativity in different ways. In high school, here at Bethany, for some years I wanted to be an athlete. I expressed my creativity on the soccer field with a clever backheel, a quick shot or an unexpected through ball. In college, there was a birth of a musical journey that would last nearly a decade as I expressed my creativity in song writing and instrumentation. My own identity, and my faith, continue to shift as I have gotten older.
The Artisan Soul
We are all artists, in our own way. Or, stated another way, we are beings created with an artisan soul. Many people in our society, indeed, many of you in this room, never have thought about yourselves in this way. ²”The great divide is between those who understand that their very nature is that of an artist and those who remain unaware or in denial of the artisan soul.” But what does this mean? What does it mean to live a creative life or to have a “Artisan Soul?” This notion is explored in wonderful detail by author and mulitipotentialite Erwin McManus. At its most elemental,²”To create is to reflect the image of God.” More explicitly, though, I am not merely talking about paint on canvas or musical notes on a page. To live artfully is to live fully. Embedded in each choice we make, no matter how trivial, is a unique opportunity to be creative. A lot of our choices throughout the day are made through emotions, or logic, or habit, but the real fun decisions often have some imagination.
We also like to think that to be creative, we have to operate “outside the box.” Correct? I would venture to say that there is a huge amount of creativity that happens within the box. In fact, all art is expressed within a given, finite medium. The mediums we choose to express ourselves through are limited, and we ourselves are limited. We have our own perspectives, which are not all encompassing.
Let’s think about it in the some traditional artistic mediums. Painting: All of the colors that have been applied to a canvas are nuanced expressions of the three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow. Music: There are 12 notes on a chromatic scale – do, re, mi, fa, so la, ti and then do again, in a new octave. Poetry: There are a fixed amount of words in any given language. Cuisine: Our favorite restaurant may have a very limited ingredient list. ²”Yet, all of the greatest artists of human history created within these boundaries, but they found new or amazing ways to combine and rearrange these elements to give us something moving, beautiful and profound.”
These boundaries are actually a good thing. We, in fact, need these boundaries to make sense of our world and of ourselves. True creativity is not going outside of these boundaries, but in the ²”genius of unleashing untapped potential and unseen beauty within the constraints” of the chosen medium.
This is how Jesus lived. Jesus was not an artist per se, but think about all of the choices he made. He was unconventional. He chose to see things and act in ways that were hugely counter-cultural and still are. He talked to the people he wasn’t supposed to; sided with them, and allowed himself to be loved by sinners and judged by the so-called righteous. He had no limits on what was possible, and sure, as the Son of God, he was in a good place to operate that way. But he also inspired those around him to begin to operate in the same way. ²”The movement Jesus started was a movement of dreamers and visionaries, not a movement of academics and theologians.”
So, your turn: Think for a moment on the most profound or inspiring moments in your life. Were you alone? Did you share that moment with someone? Did you plan it? What made it so significant? Where was the creativity on that moment?
This is the important stuff! Life is not about getting a great job and having a family. Sure these thing are important, but our lives are meant to be about soul – the deep stuff, which happens to be where creativity resides. When we live creatively, soulfully, the rest then then falls into place. Unfortunately, we live in a society that devalues soul. This has significant repercussions.
In his book, Care for the Soul, Thomas Moore identifies an important truth about our the soul. ³”When soul is neglected it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning.” We see evidence of this everywhere we look.³”We yearn excessively for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and material things, and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or job, the right church or therapy. But without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas. Lacking that soulfulness, we attempt to gather these alluring satisfactions to us in great masses, thinking apparently that quantity will make up for lack of quality.”
Darkness and Light
Many of the greatest pieces of art and music are full of soul. Sometimes it is exuberant, at other times, full of despair. To examine and truly love our soul demands some appreciation of its complexity. We cannot have highs without lows, light without dark. And in my life, and in your lives, I am sure you have been on both ends of those continuums. But when we choose to live creatively, from our souls, we live a life with inherent risk, but a life that is deeply rich. We cannot live fully and be surprised when we meet with failure.
Creativity lives in both ends of the spectrum. I think that most of us, and I will include myself, like, and want to live in the happier moments. We avoid pain, we avoid difficult conversations and seek a cure for our “emotional ailments.” We think that we can just get rid of our sadness, or our depression, our anger and some of our uglier traits. But what if we can’t? Moore speaks of care and not cures, stating that, ³”a major difference between care and cure is that cure implies the end of trouble. If you are cured, you don’t worry about whatever was bothering you any longer. But care has a sense of ongoing attention. There is no end, conflicts may never be fully resolved. Your character will never change radically, although you may go through some interesting transformations. Awareness can change, of course, but problems may persist and never go away.”
Care ultimately contributes to a greater self-understanding. As we become increasingly self-aware, we consequently become more aware of all of our short-comings. There is a sweet irony in the notion that the healthier we become, the more clearly we see our imperfections and inadequacies. Well-being is not a journey toward perfection, but a journey toward wholeness. We are all familiar with the saying that life is not a destination but a journey. What a deep truth! It is a realization that the journey itself is what brings fulfillment and even joy.
Our Greatest Work of Art
The creative life is a journey where we are constantly interpreting our own stories. This in turn, tells the human story. This is also the realm in which hope, redemption and love lie. The most powerful stories are the ones where people did not drown in despair, but overcame seemingly insurmountable circumstances or perhaps the ugliest parts of themselves, to find a way forward. This cannot happen without creativity; without searching for alternative solutions.
The way forward is not for the faint of heart. We must be brave. This is especially true in the realm of our lives as our greatest medium for artistic expression. The bigger the dream, the greater the risk. The more we create, the more we become aware of our limitations. ²”Great art transcends boundaries and travels in the infinite space of the human soul.” Think about the blind pianist, or the the paraplegic painter. These are people who did not see an end or a limitation. Their story is powerful not because they make merely art, but because they chose to live in a way outside convention. They made a choice to go beyond what most would expect from them, and perhaps what they initially expected from themselves.
Some of the most powerful works of art are at the intersection of contrasts. Where there is hope in the midst of pain, forgiveness in the midst of betrayal, courage in the midst of the unknown. To turn our lives into masterpieces is to know both pain and healing, despair and hope, darkness and light. Our most powerful work comes when we reveal beauty in the midst of tragedy. When we value the boundaries and limits we create within, we are living in a way that truly reflects the divine. Our earth, creation, is a prime example. This medium ²”does not limit God’s creativity but rather celebrates it.” God in his infinite power and imagination, made our planet, made us from from finite materials. “We are only human. We have all heard this somewhat disparaging evaluation of ourselves, but we are simultaneously God’s chosen medium for his most important work. We who are made of the dust of the earth have the capacity to carry out the most powerful acts of love.”
I spent many many years trying to figure out who I was, and truthfully, I think we are always doing that a little bit, though I am much more confident in who God created me to be and what I have to offer the world. What I do know, is that I want to live my life in a way that reflects creativity. Yes, in my profession, but more importantly in how I choose to interact with others, in who I am as a husband and a father, and a child of God.
It is not easy: as we grow older creativity is often replaced with conformity, originality with standardization. Some of you know what you want to do for the rest of your life; some of you have no idea. Some of you think you do but you really don’t. All of these are ok. We can all do many things and in fact you will likely try your hand at a few different disciplines and career tracks. I believe it to be the new normal. But regardless of whatever your job ends up being, there is a whole lot of room for you to each explore your deepest creative capacity. Your life – the choices you make, how you interact with the world around you – this, can be your greatest expression of the Ultimate Creator’s vision when he first breathed life into you.
So. Artists. Musicians. Biologists. Mathematicians. Farmers. Teachers. Ministers. Politicians. Multipotentialites. May you all find a way forward to craft your lives in ways that reflect the creative genius we are all made of.
1. Emilie Wapnick. “Why Some of us Don’t Have One True Calling.” YouTube video, 12:52. Published on May 26, 2015. https://youtu.be/QJORi5VO1F8.
2. Edwin Raphael McManus, The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art (New York: Harper Collins, 2011).
3. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).