Sometimes I fill my thoughts with regrets about the choices I have made. Chafing under circumstances and stressors, I wish for paths I could have taken. I spoke to a girl recently whom I discovered worked with someone I considered an icon. My envy of her situation palpable, I gushed over her luck, only to be met with responses sadly akin to many of my own from times past. There was the same hesitancy and careful wording in her speech. The same fear of retribution underscored by frustration and resentment to be caught in the position where the illusions of success ran up against the realities a ruthless experience. Not that much later, news in the ceramic community leaked of yet another apprentice breaking from and citing cruelty in their much more successful, and much more established mentor. Illusions shattered.
I know people who truly believe that forcing someone to fight to prove themselves worthy is the best course. That the misery they have experienced makes them stronger and the harsh do-or-die environments they create are the only ways to ensure someone will successfully claw their way to greatness.
I am not immune to the desire for greatness; a passion to prove myself, but there is a flipside to this ravenous hunger for success: a relentless fear of weakness and failure. The idea that someone else winning is the same as me losing. The next person coming up the ladder will be the one to knock me off. And that is true, when the ladder I am climbing is built on the bones of people I have trampled on my way up.
But why must I follow the rules that say I must be the best or I have lost? What if I follow the footsteps of grace over the demands of nature? What if instead of carving and hacking my way through, I planted and nurtured a system by investing in other people? I watched Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life recently: if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately. The film gorgeously illustrates the struggle to emulate grace despite the cutthroat inclinations imbedded within.
think about the fears of establishing a practice based on kindness and grace: the fear that my work will not develop strongly. That I will become too soft, unable to make tough calls or fight my way through in a thankless world. I think of the many models I have experienced in ceramics communities over the years: those designed to draw life out of the smallest seed and those calculated to weed out the unworthy and undesirable. And then I think of the times I have been able to create my own small environments amidst these varied backdrops.
I’ve never regretted encouraging someone to better themselves- to try and to reach and to do what they love. I’ve never regretted celebrating when another person does something spectacular that I could not or did not do. I’ve never regretted opening myself up to people who are broken and struggling, just as I struggle every day. What do I regret? The times when I have chosen bitterness over joy. When I let my resentment cause me to focus on another’s detriment rather than either of our betterment.
I do not want an empire built on the bones of those I’ve broken and reworked to suit my image. I want to weave a living web of people connected and supporting each other. I think this requires a refocusing- a relinquishing of the pursuit of the best in exchange for personal betterment. Fighting it out alone is exhausting- so why would I bother, especially if there is a better way?