Courting obscurity

Sat outside a farm-shop cafe yesterday, which was one of the busiest spaces I’ve been in for quite some time, my eye cast over the tables and happened upon the first new newspaper I’d seen in, likely, a couple of years.

Its headline shouted out “money speaks”.

So, the world hasn’t changed so very much during my, what feels like, long absence. By which I mean absence in more senses than one, not only because of lockdown restrictions and choosing to keep out of public places but also, in truth, feeling thoroughly disengaged from the world in an internal sense, focussing on my deep-healing process whilst reconfiguring my priorities during a time of transition with my family.

One of the ways I disengaged is that I stopped, I mean really just stopped, everything. Including putting any energy, at all, into the so-called “marketing” of what “I do” (that troublesome phrase) as an artist. My main, and still somewhat reluctant, outlet other than blogging (which is, at least, where I get to be myself for no other purpose than…) is Instagram because it is predominantly visual so it seemed like a reasonable fit with being an artist, though I’ve gradually learned its what you say and how you say it that really garners the attention you are meant to seek. Yet I also chose it because it seemed friendly, less abrasive and mostly harmless enough in art circles (I avoid most other kinds of account) and I do enjoy the occasional dip into what other artists are doing. Plenty of my art acquaintances seem to chatter away on there almost daily, garnering just enough interest, in a non-hard-selling way, to keep their cottage industries afloat. So, I tried for a long time, yet there was just one problem I kept hitting up against.

Which is, put simply, a core reluctance in me to take part in any of the chitter-chatter noise out there which, this year, has completely got the better of me such that all of my heart and effort went out of social media self-promotion months ago. Though I “could” do it, have all of the appropriate tools to “make myself” do it, bleating on about my creativity just doesn’t feel like me at all. Try as I might to turn “the products” of my creativity into newsworthy sport, the moment I did that self-promotion thing, it didn’t feel like me anymore and this bugged me for years. And its not just the art side of things; I notice the same pull-back when it comes to making small talk with anyone. I used to have the stamina to at least put on a good show of it but now, well, I just don’t anymore. The well as dried up.

You see, I’m a deeply, deeply introverted person, not at all a show-and-tell kind of girl (and, for the record, we introverts are famously rubbsh at small talk, most of us loathe it). Yes, I’ve done that “ta-dah” kind of stuff in my life, mostly at school or in certain jobs, but it felt forced and never felt authentically “like me”. I didn’t even know how much that was true until I stopped doing it and found all this terrible erosion of myself had taken place from the attempt, like I was a moth-eaten old carpet where, once (back in those halcyon days of childhood, when I did things expressly for my own amusement) I felt bright and colourful and intact, especially when I was lost in the inner world of my creations. Life had done that to me; the “need to perform” in order to survive had frayed all my edges, repeatedly, and it came as a terrible shock to realise how the innocence of my earliest motivators had been tarnished by the great drivers of our culture, to succeed, to compete, to make money, to show-off what we do.

So being that Insta-persona didn’t feel authentic and, whilst its clear to see that its only those artists who are truly prepared to share their output and their chitter-chatter (social media’s version of small-talk) everyday, that make a real go of it, I’m simply not happy pushing myself through those hoops.

If I take the very best couple of examples of artists I know who do well on Instagram, one of whom I know to be gregarious and extroverted in person, whose accounts are engaging and feel real and worth looking at, you can tell its “really them” wanting to share what they just made and chatting away to people in the daily comments, which is great for them. As per most extroverts, they are likely energised by their social (media) engagements whereas introverts tend to be depleted by them which means, for us, they have to be really worth it, with other pay-offs such as achieving a profound and satisfying depth of conversation (which you are very unlikely to get on social media, let’s be realistic here). They are able to be themselves, no compromises, and also make a go of social, self-promotional, behaviours as a sort-of byproduct. So, if you were to meet them, they would probably sound just the same as their online persona and would sit you down for a coffee or a workshop demo, easily making friends with you and everyone else into the bargain; the more the merrier.

However, as the introvert, I simply wouldn’t do all that…or, it would be a struggle against my grain, faking it till I make it, just as I had to “seem” more extrovert than I really am to get by at school and at work…usually by closely watching what other people do and then mimicking their behaviours until I “got it right” (whilst feeling I had to hide my differences away from scrutiny). Mimicking other people’s behavours on social media and trying to read their responses correctly is particularly difficult and soul destroying, not to mention fraught with perils, and is another way that I have noticed I was being constanly depleated and defeated by the activity until I stopped.

The big tester being, I would hate to have to deal with people knocking at my door everyday, popping in for coffee and chats whenever they wanted, so why pretend its any different in virtual space, where people expect to engage with you day and night and to have opinions about your life and everything you do? In feigning that I’m OK with this, I have been misrepresenting myself and (the fear deep inside of me) feeling as though, if I suddenly had to appear in front of these same people in the flesh, I would let all their expectations of me down, because this isn’t how I am. Really, I want the art I produce to do ALL the talking when it comes to my artist persona…and to retire into its background…which, thankfully, I can do through the kind of representation where I don’t have to, also, be an art-personality but its a slow business because people “expect” you to also be a Big Personality as well as an artist these days (no such pressure was put on all the, countless, artist…and writer and genius…recluses and introverts of old). It’s the only way that leads to success, so they say; and without it, you disappear into oblivion.

Yet suddenly, this year, oblivion felt preferable, on all counts, not just as an artist. A big part of me yearns (and had always yearned) for disengagement on all fronts, I realised…so, how had I been overlooking its plaintive cry inside of me, screaming at me to disappear into the cracks, to find comfort and who knows what else in there? Once I pulled back, even for the first few weeks, I could see how social media had bent me into a pretzel, just the same as the very lifestyle I had had to give up for my health; the one where I used to pretend to be “other” (less neurodiverse, less introverted, less sensitive…) than I really am. All those pretences led me to falling off the edge of the cliff of my health, breaking up into pieces that I’m still picking up and learning how to reconfigure. So, stopping all my engagements and imperatives, even the virtual kind (except for the occasional blog, which is where I get to be authentic, no strings attached) has been a really good thing this year, but its left me in a kind-of-a void. Having no demands on you feels kind-of odd when you’ve lived a lifetime of high expectations…many of them set up and re-enforced by yourself!!!

Where do these demands of each other, and of ourselves, come from? Really, their root is always to be found in a base idea (or, fear!) of what it takes to survive, which then morphs itself into all those fixed ideas we have about what constitutes “success”. If I am connected and popular and busy, I am succeeding, therefore I can cease fearing that my survival is under constant threat so I can relax at last, or so we tell ourselves. But what really denotes success? Is it “being like everyone else” or is it being truly, authentically, yourself and standing by that, come what may? Does it come from truly knowing what that authentic self feels like, getting to know it intimately, what makes it tick and then allowing it, supporting it so that you can truly thrive as a person (and I’m not talking about income bracket)?

If being yourself means disappearing down the cracks, out of sight, into some-sort of inner sanctum where you feel happiest and most yourself, even if no one can see you being that way because the experience of it is entirely subjective and private, is that wrong? Or is it just a cultural idea of what is wrong; yet another inequality that favours the extroverted and leaves those of us who are natural hermits gasping for fresh air? In being introverted, am I part of yet another subset of people forced into having to disguise or compromise who they really are to be socially acceptable and get by, even (if income depends on it) to materially thrive? What I’m seeing, lately, is just a little bit more give for introverts in the media, because the topic has caught on as a trend, but not, by any means, the kind of acceptance that goes the whole hog. As in, we can afford be a bit quieter than our extroverted colleagues or family members here and there without constant ridicule but we are still expected to yield to a dominantly extroverted framework of existence, especially as regards making a living. Yes, money talks (though I seldom like what it has to say)! What if we don’t want to listen any more? What if the ideal world of an introvert or sensitive or neurodiverse person looks very different to the one in which we are currently expected to “perform” as human beings?

Back to that original headline, does money really talk and if it does, do I have to choose to speak that particular language or can I abstain? Thankfully, having grown so accustomed to an unreliable, often non-existent, income flow from my creative output, along with my chronic health issues throwing my productivity into frequent disarray, we are used to not relying on it so I realise I am in a privileged position, not having to turn creativity into “work” when I don’t want to. So why do (rather, did) I still feel pressured to take part in the way the world “is”? Why do I still subscribe to some life-coach woman’s weekly emails telling me how to market myself as an introvert entrepreneur, against all the odds of my personality type, when I don’t even want to go there? When, to be honest, I’m really not interested, at all?

When I’m true to myself, when I question my deepest motives, as I have this year, I “don’t even care” about the usual drivers for making an impression as an artist, or even as a person, upon the world; they don’t even register. In fact, “I really don’t care” is a phrase that I notice bubbling up inside of me a lot lately when I reach some sort of typical choice point of the kind that would once have determined how I prioritised my day. “I don’t care, I really don’t care either way…” and it’s not that I’m depressed or have lost my way or sense of purpose. It’s more like I’m finding a new one, a truer once. I have no idea what it is but, taking my own advice, I’m allowing the feelings to be felt, those surprise gut-responses to my enquiries to be heard without criticism or deadline and simply allowing them, in their own abstract timescale and winding path, to lead the way. In short, I’m getting really curious about my own “I don’t care” ness instead of feeling alarmed by it, sensing it leads somewhere that I do care, very much!

Perhaps this is my happy place. Perhaps I prefer to question the paradigm as its own kind of “activity”, an end unto itself. Perhaps I chose to make the life-purpose of doing just that. Modelling an alternate way, driven and made curious by all those unique traits that happen to be inherently mine (not someone else’s, not always determined by groupthink behaviours). Now there’s a novelty; but it already feels far better than what I was “doing” before. Just letting go, led by the feelings, embracing the void, the obscurity, prepared to see “what next?” instead of having a plan. After all, “obscure” simply means “unknown”…and I strongly suspect that all our best hopes for the future lie waiting in that terrain.

A blogging-friend recently sent me a wonderful meditation on the topic of what it is to “behold”, a word I’ve always liked (its a wonderful, on-point, article, entitled ‘We are called to “behold”‘ and I highly recommend it). To me, “behold” is a word that adds gravitas to simple moments deserving of pause. “Behold that view!” I can imagine declaring as I fling open the window shutters, “Behold the way that beadlet of water hanging off a single grass blade holds so much light” or “Behold, that person is finally doing something for themselves, straight from the heart!” Take that moment in, it declares, without sullying it with expectations or judgments or opinions. Literally “Be” there and “Hold” space for something without precognition (always thinking we already know what we are about to take in…as we tend to do). Perhaps we even allow ourselves to be held by that “other” thing we encounter, as the article suggests, as in, to surrender into the experience of it, letting go of all our tension and controls. We allow space for the unexpected. We open to receive the gift of it. We allow the gift to be one we never even asked for or expected. We allow whatever it is to insinuate itself without fanfare yet, often, quite the unexpected sense of manifestation or transformation occuring. To be fragile, unsure and yet, somehow, just what we most needed next.

Right now, in allowing my innate quietness, my deepest introversion, my “lack of caring” about old drivers of behaviour, I am doing that very thing…beholding life unfold. I’m holding space for a rebirth, a reboot, to arise spontaneously out of the so-called inertia of my life, which is really a case of stopping what I erstwhile did in order to get out of my own way. Ceasing doing what I was expected to do or being who I thought I had to be (or presumed I was expected to do or be) for long enough to be surprised by what I might otherwise have missed or failed to appreciate and what is likely to be exactly what I most need in order to become more of myself, which is all we are really here to do.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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