Chipping Away

Dr. Kelly Flanagan’s post yesterday resonated with me. We’re already who we want to be, he says. We just have to find us within ourselves.

He’s right, as he usually is, and he says it better than I can, as he usually does. So I won’t try to recap his work. Click the link above and go read it–I think you’ll find it worth your time.

He uses the metaphor of a woodcarver to make his point, but I’m reminded of a quote I’ve often heard attributed to Michelangelo about his process of crafting a sculpture from stone:

I just chip away everything that doesn’t look like what I’m crafting.

The quote is almost certainly apocryphal, so I’ve shortened and edited it to fit my own purposes. But it illustrates the point. A block of stone has its own strengths and weaknesses, its own hard and soft parts, its own qualities and flaws that govern what an artist can do with it. Michelangelo may never have been able to coax the David out of a block of granite, or even a different block of marble. But somehow, he saw it within that block, and when he was finished with it, he had crafted an immortal masterpiece.

The good news is we can follow Michelangelo’s thinking as we develop ourselves. We can find the shape of our true selves within us, then chip away everything that doesn’t look like those true selves.

That’s also the bad news. Because discovering our true shape in a world where everyone we know has a plan for what we should be, where society has its own ideals of what we should be, where people are so quick to judge and criticize and seek fault and assign blame, is not easy. It takes effort, and it takes years.

It often starts with a years-long attempt to become something we desperately want to be but eventually discover we are spectacularly unsuited for. And the attempt leaves us broken and hopeless, maybe hugely in debt, with no idea what to do next. After that, it’s tempting to label ourselves as failures and just be grateful for whatever we can get and assume we’ll never do any better than miserable mediocrity. After that, it’s hard even to think about trying something else and exposing ourselves to more failure. After that, just getting out of bed and finding a job and showing up day after day while we try to figure out our next step takes courage.

But we’ve just chipped away a big chunk of something that doesn’t look like us. As we totter forward, we can chip away more.

And one day, if we keep trying, if we hold onto the courage it takes to absorb failures and keep staggering ahead, we find something that makes our souls ring. We find a job, a hobby, a routine, a partner that makes us realize this is who we are.

That doesn’t mean it becomes easy. We still have to do the hard work of chipping away whatever hides our true selves, and take care not to accidentally chip away the true parts. But in that moment, we caught a glimpse of what that might be. And that glimpse makes all the hard work, all the ugliness and mistakes and failures and hopelessness worth it.

Some of us can reveal ourselves with just a few quick blows. Others will keep chipping away for the rest of our lives. But if we can find the courage to pick up our hammer and chisel and start the process, we may find it more rewarding than whatever we’re doing instead.

Start chipping away. You might be surprised at what you find.

I've been a soldier, a dreamer, a working stiff, a leader. A husband, father, example (good and otherwise), and now a survivor. I write about courage, because courage is what enables us to accomplish the impossible. If you draw breath, I love you. If you love in whatever way seems best to you and want others to love in whatever way seems best to them, I am your ally. If you believe someone is less than you because they do not love the way you do, I oppose you. If you see someone as a threat to be abused or destroyed merely because they do not look like you, or love like you, or worship like you, I am your enemy. I am a joyful and courageous man. And I stand with you who love.