A friend made a decision to leave a job recently. It was a hard decision for her, because even though she knew it was the right time for her to leave, she didn’t want to disappoint her employers and coworkers.
What do you do when being yourself causes other people pain? Is it ever appropriate to compromise your values to shelter others from sadness? How do you balance your own need for authenticity with the rights and needs of others? These are big questions and we all deal with them in many ways.
The story told in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev offers some amazing insight into this dilemma.
Asher Lev is born into an orthodox Jewish family just after the Second World War. His father is a leader who devotes his life to the well being of Jews around the world. He expects his son to follow in his foot steps. Instead Asher is passionate about art. He is more than talented. He is a creative prodigy.
His family and community are hyper critical about his passion to create art. Not only do they see him as wrong and misguided. They say he is being evil and sinful. Yet he can’t suppress his creative calling. He tries, but it destroys him NOT to express his gift.
For Asher, being true to himself meant being an artist. He had to express his art in order to become all that he could be. But there was a major cost to his authenticity.
He has to leave his religious community, at least for a while. Asher says toward the end of the book, “I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy…Asher Lev paints good pictures and hurts people he loves.”
He then hears the voice of God reply, “Then be a great painter, Asher Lev; that will be the only justification for all the pain you will cause…. Journey with me, my Asher. Paint the anguish of all the world. Let people see the pain.”
Whether you believe in God or not, the message is powerful. However you describe or name it, authenticity is an inner calling to express the essence of who you are and let it grow and flourish. It’s soul destroying to ignore it. And if it causes suffering for others, who don’t like or understand your passion, then you need to make sure you use your gift in ways that make the world a better place.
So if your conscience calls you to leave a job, break up a relationship, enlist in the military or join a picket line, and people close to you resent it, make sure it counts for something significant.
I’ve experienced this dilemma personally. I’ve always been a square peg in the round hole that is mainstream religion. My decision to create something that goes beyond religion has caused suffering for many people. But the calling is strong and the need for those who aren’t looking for religion but still want to live full, passionate and meaningful lives, is clear.
Like Asher, my inner voice tells me to keep going no matter how much criticism I face, and to do it for the right reasons and in a way that transforms suffering.
In an interesting parallel to the novel, Asher uses Christian crucifixion imagery to illustrate his theme of suffering. This is very hard for his Jewish family.
In my case, it was removing a cross that was so important. Instead of living under the shadow of a symbol that has been used to exclude, manipulate and kill, I chose to open a path for people of all faiths and no faith to come together and practice being deeply human and real alongside each other. We don’t need to be rescued nor do we need rescue each other. We need to direct each other within, where there is limitless creative power and strength to find an authentic path with heart.
Most of us aren’t faced with extreme choices like Asher Lev, but we are all confronted with daily decisions to live authentically and face the consequences of our choices.
The bottom line is to be true to yourself for sure. But more than that, be a GREAT version of yourself. So that when people look at your life, even those who despise your choices, they are inspired to be a GREAT version of who they are.