I wonder if you have ever had this thought while doing something you love: When will I be good enough to be seen in this?
It’s an odd thought, the idea that there are standards for being visible. And that I have to hide until I’ve met them. I’ve asked the question of so many pursuits for so long that I’ve grown accustomed to an unending list and no ready answers.
Maybe, like me, you grew up like this: Your culture was such that it celebrated what it deemed ‘excellence’ in the very select few. You saw the same musicians time and again on the big stages, the same few writers winning the same elusive awards. Perhaps you knew the names of the top sportspeople—household names, synonymous with greatness—and then you knew… well, nothing much else.
Maybe, like me, it felt to you like no one but the select few played the game or wrote a song or penned the novel. I could name no lonelier feeling, this division between them and me and the hinterland between.
In my mind, the elite few were granted the gift of expression. They were seen. What’s more their expression in any field was held up, not as mere inspiration but as The Standard.
But maybe, unlike me, none of this ever occurred to you. You may have kept right on playing basketball or wizarding in whatever way suited you best because being seen to you did not equate to an audience. For those of us prone to crippling comparison, however, The Standard set up a quest that by virtue of pursuit is never achieved.
Take music for example.
I picked up the violin again this year after decades away from it, and I have been getting back into attending live performances. One of these took place at a sweet old church in Portland near where I live. The stage was set with hundreds of LED candles, and we enjoyed arrangement after arrangement of beloved songs played by an enthusiastic string quartet.
After the performance, I heard someone behind me mention the first violinist’s occasional messy string crossings and their surprise at these transgressions. I found myself silently agreeing.
The violinist’s string crossings had been audible at times—in other words, technically imperfect. But had they affected the pleasure in gathering with others for music in an old church that is lit from its very center by a thousand simulated flames?
Like my own self-flagellating questions so long flung into the void, I couldn’t answer that one for a while.
Recorded music, of course, is notoriously standardized. With auto tune and the splicing together of infinite takes to create one ‘performance,’ we the audience are conditioned to hear a sort of simulated perfection when we open our streaming apps. Sometimes it sounds as if human beings were hardly present in the making of the music at all, or if they were they took great technological pains to cover their tracks.
But live music like life in real time is a-live, immediate, and prone to variation.
With the shift to streaming and social media sharing platforms, expression in all its variation is enjoying an entirely new age. Anyone at any skill level can eject their creative output into the world these days, and many anyones often do. So is this world much different from the one I knew growing up?
Well, we have our Instagram beauty culture and our heavily mastered recordings, but we do also have a massive range of alternate options. Artists and videographers and podcasters and musicians of all ranges and interests are sharing their work, and with an actual audience!
Fifteen years ago this would have been the song of fantasy.
In this reverie world made real, the absurdity of my struggle is beginning to take shape.
…If we have always had this wealth of creative possibility among us, what the hell have I been doing all these years denying it? Has expression always been allowed, and have I been simply looking (and listening) the other way?
It is a day or reckoning indeed when you realize your martyrdom as just another form of control.
Excellence is worthy of celebration. As is experimentation, and un-self-consciousness, and the simple euphoria that is a few musicians coming together in a garage to say something to one another, or to the world.
It doesn’t have go viral. It does not have to make history. It doesn’t even have to be a m a z i n g. As creatures who naturally birth and breathe and live in an infinitely expanding universe, creation itself is endemic, requiring nothing because it makes the thing. It never needed permission.
So today I remind myself to sing it, write it, play it, bake it, dream it, do it, find it, fake it. Be it and see what it is without waiting for anyone else to say go.