Living to Leave the World Better, But Still Destroying It

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Months go by fast these days. I feel like I’m writing consistently again, and then I look down at the date and realize it’s been almost four weeks since I took the time to create something and take it from inside my mind to outside of it.

Things fill my time, without me even realizing it. Work, recreation, reading, relationships, all good things, but all things that take seconds, minutes and hours. Something else that takes up my time? Social media. And today, I saw something on it that, quite frankly, sparked a fire deep in the pit of my stomach.

I’ve noticed that it’s become a common theme amongst my generation to (pardon my verbiage) shit on how our parents, families and role models raised us, particularly in the Christian demographic, which I am part of and quite accustomed to. I do this myself, often. I take all the negative things that happened to me as a young person growing up in a Bible-Belt, Christian culture, and I demonize the entire experience. I pick it apart, filleting negative memory after negative memory, until I create a cynical soul inside my being toward everything and everyone that tried only to love me.

Here’s the thing:
people are not perfect. Parents are not perfect. Pastors are not perfect.
People hurt. Parents wound. Pastors are human.

And guess what? The people who raised us - their people, parents and pastors were not perfect either, and people still hurt people, parents wounded their children, and despite popular belief, the Saints were humans too.

I’m really tired of my personal droning and others’ droning on and on about how messed up we are and how messed up our world is because of those who raised us. This is not a specific generation’s fault. This is the human experience: we are raised, we grow, we are wounded, we learn, we teach, we wound, we die, only to leave more wounds, while trying to mend where we were wounded once ourselves.

As a human, it is our only hope that we leave the world a better place for those coming after us than it was for ourselves, and while we do that, we are bound to do a lot of damage. Just as our parents, grandparents and others have done.

I remember all of the rules I grew up around in a Conservative, Christian culture: “Don’t read Harry Potter; it’s full of witchcraft.” “Don’t watch Rugrats; Angelica is rude and has no manners.” “Don’t dance, drink, swear or smoke; you’ll rot in Hell.” The list goes on. And now, I am beginning to see why it does.

These rules, while looking back, seem silly, savage and detrimental to being ‘Saved,’ but I am starting to understand not why they were rules, but more of why those raising me felt like they should be. They were trying to protect me, love me and help me grow up in a world better than the one they knew, and I cannot hate them for that.

I have been hurt. I have been wounded, and I am part of the human experience, which guarantees me of one thing: I will hurt, I will would and I am going to impact others around me with these traits. I only hope there is grace. . . and that they somehow don’t hate me for it.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: Process this piece. Take it as a rough draft - not as a finished thought. As a wounded, try to understand the wounder.

What I've Learned About Goals

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What does a soccer ball flying through the air at 80mph have in common with a goal? It scores, and they both terrify me.

I wish I liked goals, because you know, they get you places, but to be honest, I don’t like them much at all. They stress me out. Personally, I don’t set very many for myself, not in stone at least, and If I do set a goal, it’s a big deal. If I set a goal, it means I’m bound to something. If I’m bound to something it means I have to do the damn thing, or else I fail, and as a perfectionist, failure is worse than just about everything. Except stepping in puddles on the bathroom floor in your socks. Those are still the worst.

Goals terrify me, and for some reason, they always have.

The first goal I ever remember setting was in the fifth grade, and it was a lofty one. I was going to make 10 free throws - IN A ROW - to win our local Knights of Columbus Free Throw Competition. I remember going to the gym to practice my j’s and my free throws every day after school with my mom leading up to the big event. I’d stand at the line in my red and black T-Mac’s, brush the hair from my bowl-cut out of my eyes, take two dribbles before spinning the ball in my fingertips, and then I would stroke shot after shot up until I made ten in a row. When I missed, I would start over from the beginning and try again until I got my 10 for the day. I worked super hard to win that competition, and (humble brag) I did, but even more than that, I faced the fear I had deep down in the pit of my stomach that I was going to waste all of the hard work that I had put in over the previous few months.

Even as a fifth grader, I was aware of what it felt like to fear failing at something I cared about.

A few years ago, I set another goal. I told myself that I was going to write 100 blog posts over the span of 100 days.

When I set that goal, I didn’t have 100 topics in my back pocket that I was raring to write about. Sure, I had 15-20, but definitely not 100, which meant that more than half the time, I would sit down at my computer with no idea of what I was going to write, and I would just start typing. Eventually, words would come and slowly start to make sentences that formed the thoughts that were hiding deep in the back of my mind. It was a grueling goal to purse, but I managed to finish it. I had my busy days and late nights making sure that I wasn’t going to let myself down, and in the end, I learned a lot through the process, but I’m not sure that the thing I learned most had anything to do with writing. It had to do with goals.

Goals aren’t bad. Goals are good. I’ll fail at them, and so will you, and that’s totally okay. The most important thing is to just do them. Even after you fail. Keep doing them. Do the Whole30. Write a book. Do 5 pushups a day. Don’t kill a plant. Do the things and tell other people you’re doing them too, so they can hold you accountable and encourage you when you need it.

Don’t fear the failure. Feed the future.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: Sit down and do it.

Hi, My Name is What?


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Hey -

It’s me, Austin.

Oh, you forgot who I am?

That’s okay; I did too.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself these days:

I’m 27 now. I’m 27, and I’m still a Christian, but that’s been about the only consistent thing in my life throughout my 20s. Faith is important to me, as it’s about the only thing that’s kept me somewhat grounded when everything else flies up in the air in a gigantic tornado and lands about a thousand miles away from me. I go to church, read the Good Book and am fascinated by the concept of being a fallen creation with a story to live and tell.

The unspeakables are as follows: I follow the teachings of Jesus. I’m a democrat. I make enough money.

My day job consists as working as a screen printer and marketer at a local business in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City, Okla. I ended up there by chance on my journey into learning local business because everything else I have tried doing hasn’t worked out so great. This is the first job I’ve ever actually looked forward to doing day in and day out, and I’m grateful to be surrounded by encouragers, creatives and folks who want to make a difference in the community they’re in.

By night, I try to chase dreams. I want to be a writer (still), and I am learning to play the guitar cowboy chord by cowboy chord. I go to the gym, swim and listen to loads of music along the way, and I try to hit up a microbrewery for a trivia night every so often.

Relationally, I’ve got some of the best friends I’ve ever had, though they live 90 miles away, and I’m trying to make even more here in the current city I’m in. I’m trusting myself in a relationship again, after having made some major mistakes in the past, and things are going great as she challenges me, laughs with me and trusts me. I have a church home that I want to get to know more as they get to know me more, and honestly, I think that’s going to work out just fine.

My hobbies include going to coffee shops, absorbing as much music as I possibly can, following my alma mater’s sports programs, playing board games, dabbling in landscape photography and taking in stories that I can relate to.

I’m not the same as I was five years ago, and I won’t be the same five years from now. I mostly just wanted to write this so that you would know who I am today… because it’s my biggest fear that you don’t.

Cheers to breaking fears.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: Know yourself.

The 26-Year-Old Identity Crisis

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Last week, I had a personality evaluation with a company called Hogan Assessments. I was selected to participate in a study they were doing on young professionals, and with that, I was required to take a series of three personality tests and be a part of a one-on-one feedback session following the tests that went over my results. It was in this feedback session that my evaluator told me something point blank that I had known for a while about myself but that I hadn’t told anyone:

“You’re not necessarily a creative of the visual arts; You just appreciate the visual arts.”

The other day at work, I looked out the window to see a what looked like a 15-year-old kid operating a DSLR camera on his own in downtown Oklahoma City. He was out with his friends taking portraits, photographing the cityscape around him and executing a flawless photoshoot . . . as a 15-year-old. When I was 15, the only thing I could execute was mowing our backyard, and even that got a little dodgy around the edges. Here this kid was handling a piece of equipment worth thousands of dollars and probably getting some great experience, and he probably had to have his parents drop him off downtown to do so.

As I watched he and his friends, I couldn’t help but wonder how the sales of cameras have trended since the development of Instagram and other photo sharing outlets. I wouldn’t know if they would have increased or not with everyone, as well as their dog, owning a camera phone, but either way, 2018 feels like a time when everyone has the chance to be a photographer. As a guy who, up until recently, thought of himself as a photographer, a world full of photographers seems weird.

As of late, photography, among other things, has been a part of a weird identity crisis that I’ve been having. For example, up until recently, I held the job title of ‘Graphic Designer.’ I took on that identity. However, here’s the catch - I didn’t feel like a graphic designer because in my mind, even with the title, I was not a graphic designer. I know my fair share of graphic designers, and according to the calculations I was running in my head, what they were and what I was were not matching up.

To break that down a bit more for the sake of example, in my mind, a graphic designer is a creator - one who is able to make something out of nothing. One who can take what’s in the mind and turn it into a tangible piece of art that communicates feeling, meaning and beauty. Now, what was it that I was doing? I was replicating. I could look through designs, find one that I liked and use a design program to replicate what was done before me in a manner that fit what I needed, but I was never able to create from scratch. I felt more like a graphic replicator, not a designer. In other words, I felt more like I had been making pre-made frozen dinners in the microwave, rather than creating my own recipes for homemade meals. 

It’s hard to place when I started having my weird identity crisis, but I think a good place to look back to is when I started following epic photographers on Instagram. These folks had thousands of followers, captured spectacular imagery and traveled to the coolest places. After following those accounts, I made sure to follow some great graphic design accounts as well because photography and graphic design go hand-in-hand, right? (right? . . .) Anyway, the more I looked into these accounts and the lifestyle of these artists, the cooler it seemed. The work seemed cool, the people seemed cool and all of the Insta-cred seemed groovy too.

For a long time, I think I got confused and lost through social media and in the lives of others. I found myself trying to conform to a lifestyle that others might deem cool, and I even went to the lengths of taking on new identities to do so. Would I have ever liked photography without Instagram? Probably not. Would I have ever strived to achieve the title of graphic designer if I hadn’t seen a lot of cool hipsters online carrying that title? I kind of doubt it. Falling into comparison is a scary trap to get snagged in, and you can lose who you are and what you like along the way.

Now, I’m in the process of trying to get back to what I like, what I want to do and who I’m supposed to be. Now more than ever, I’m terrified of falling back into the trap of comparison and into another identity crisis along the way, and while this current, mini identity crisis has had it’s wake-up calls, it’s also had it’s perks.

For one, I appreciate art now. I appreciate design and its process, I appreciate photography and those who do it for more than a double-tap, and I appreciate aesthetic more than I could have ever imagined. I have learned to appreciate what I’m not, rather than to covet it, and I have (hopefully) learned to embrace who I am, rather than compare myself to what others are.

While living in a world full of photographers may feel weird at times, it’s also pretty cool because I know it’s giving others the chance to appreciate things they never would have appreciated before. It’s giving folks new inspiration and the chance to find a new hobby and new art, just like it did for me. Chalk it up to a new lesson learned, a new chance to be vulnerable and another chance to write.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: Comparison is the thief of joy, so don’t covet what we aren’t, but appreciate it.

Why Don't You Chase Your Goals?

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Not having goals may make life feel meaningless, but having goals and doing nothing to achieve them makes it feel damning.

It never fails, the hardest thing for me about writing has always been sitting down to write. I’ll do just about everything under the sun (i.e scroll through Instagram, taxes, iron my socks) to avoid starting the writing the process. I’ll tell myself that I want to write, but I’ll then find every excuse not too.

A few months ago, I was sitting in my room one afternoon living in the middle of one of those excuses not to write, and I fell down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos from the TV show, ‘The Office.’ It was in this hole that I found something, a kick in the pants that I needed to hear. There was a video that featured interviews from the selected cast of ‘The Office’ reading lines from their future characters. In it, the actress who plays Pam, Jenna Fischer, read this line regarding her job on the show as a receptionist:

“I don’t care if they get rid of me . . . I don’t know what I’m going to do, but whatever it is, it’s got to be a career move, not just another arbitrary job. Jim’s advice was, ‘It’s better to be at the bottom of a ladder that you want to climb rather than halfway up one that you don’t.’”

That last line, the one about being halfway up a ladder that you don’t want to be up, really got to my 26-year-old self.

It’s a weird place to be in, having goals, dreams and aspirations, but not doing anything at all to pursue them. It's like looking out over something beautiful and turning away from it like you had just looked at the back of your hand for the hundredth time. It’s a realization that’s not only sad, but even more so, self-deprecating and hostile.

I have goals; They’re aspirations that I set for myself over the years based on my gifts, skill set and passions. I want to write a book one day. I want to start my own business that funnels a communal environment into a town that lacks it. I want to invest in the lives of individuals who are younger than me who are seeking the same types of things that I sought. I want to make a difference, and to be living a life that doesn’t pursue any of the differences you want to make is living a life without purpose.

There are a lot of reason why I chose (choose?) not to pursue my goals. Pursuing goals isn’t safe, and there’s risk. There’s a great possibility of failing, and is there anything scarier or more demoralizing than failing to achieve one’s goals or having others criticize your dreams?

I think not.

For a long time, I’ve felt halfway up a ladder that I didn’t want to be up. I was climbing up a series of safe steps that were comfortable and provisionary, but while they were safe steps, they were also dangerous. They were steps that were turning my hobbies into career moves and turning my goals into unachievable dreams due to lack of pursuit and experience. I was scared of failure, and I was scared of lack of provision.

Recently, at my church in Tulsa, we went through a sermon series that covered the book of Judges in the Bible. In this book, there’s an overwhelming pattern of God’s people repeating a pattern of sin and failure over and over again that looks like this: The people serve God, they fail and fall into sin, they become enslaved, they cry out to God to save them, God raises up a Judge to deliver them, they are delivered, and then the entire cycle repeats itself over and over again. The funny thing about the book of Judges and this cycle is that it’s really easy to focus on the repeating failure of the people in the story, rather than the repeating pattern of God’s redemption.

I don’t want to take this Biblical narrative out of context, but I think there’s something to be said for God’s redemption in people’s failures - even in regards to pursuing the goals and passions that He has instilled in us. It’s one thing to fail in choosing to follow our own, self-preservation narrative in rebellion to what He has put in our hearts. It’s another thing to fail at trying to follow God and the dreams He’s given us - in that, I believe God has endless patience and endless grace, and that is a good realization to believe in.

After taking a hard look at the ladder I was standing on, I’ve stepped off of it for the time being, and I’m standing at the bottom of a new one with the same old fears of failure and lack of provision. I can’t see to the top of this ladder, and I’m not exactly sure what’s supporting it; however, I feel like this is a ladder that’s made up more of the steps that lead to goals - goals that make life feel meaningful and a lot less damning.

-Cliff

Cliff’s Note: It’s never too late to look at what ladder you’re on.