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  • Douglas Hertler aka Doug Lory

Art and the ego, life and healing

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, Colombia

The following reflection was originally shared with my

Merton and Me email list on March 5, 2023.

I confess that the leap into the New Year was not an easy one for me, not because I wasn’t ready for a New Year, God knows I certainly was, but rather because I could not assume that 2023 would necessarily be any better, any easier, or even any healthier than 2022!

It would seem that most of us are finding life that way these days, ever more challenging, more precarious. So how do we maintain our faith, our hope, our mental and emotional health during such times?

Pretty much everyone that I know has one or more people in their lives who are suffering from anxiety and fear, hopelessness and depression, addiction and despair. I myself have recently been one of those people. Health challenges continued to test my psychological and spiritual well being last year, leaving me to marvel at those whose struggles are far greater than mine, whose faith and fortitude compel me to take stock of my own ability to not just deal with temporary adversity, but to live with permanent adversity. Gone are the days (at least for me anyway), of imagining that “once I overcome this obstacle,” all will be well, meaning my life will once again flow just the way I WANT IT TO.

In AA Step 1 of the 12 steps is, “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.” While I am most fortunate not to suffer the demon of alcohol addiction, I have certainly tasted my powerlessness of late to control any number of things, be they my physical health, relationships with friends and family, political/societal divisions, etc. This is infuriating and humbling to someone’s whose ego has historically been convinced that he can in fact make all things better, all things right and just through his words, his actions, his sheer will…

Thy Will Be Done…

Yesterday I read a newspaper column by David Brooks titled The Power of Art in a Political Age.

I have read and respected, agreed and disagreed with him for many years and have always appreciated his intellectual curiosity, his humor, and perhaps most notably, his commitment to introspection and his willingness to open his heart to his readers as he grapples with the issues of the day, the issues of our days, the issues of his days. His column began, “I sometimes feel I’m in a daily struggle not to become a shallower version of myself.” I find such a public statement of self-reflection and vulnerability inspiring and humbling, as if a gentle invitation has been extended to me to look within for my own daily struggles. He writes, “So I am trying to take countermeasures, I flee to the arts. I’m looking for those experiences we all had as a kid… The normal thing to say about such experiences is that you’ve lost yourself in a book or song - lost track of space and time. But it’s more accurate to say that a piece of art has quieted the self-conscious ego voice that is normally yapping away within.”

After watching a performance of Merton and Me an audience member wrote a testimonial to her experience, she said, “Merton and Me is a work of art.” If that is so, it can only be because Thomas Merton and many other spiritual teachers introduced me to the idea that with prayerful practice we can actually learn how to bear witness, even in real time, to that “self conscious ego voice” within. And over painstakingly long stretches of time I have been slowly able to grasp just how YAPPY that voice has been in my life over the years… and how unbelievably Blessed I am to have such forgiving family and friends!

Brooks also writes, “Artists don’t generally set out to improve other people; they just want to create a perfect expression of their experience.” I’m afraid I did “set out to improve other people” though, most fervently in my 20’s and 30’s but right up until this day I know. I never identified myself as an artist, but by God I was somehow going to fix the world, and all the people in it, through my calling as an actor! But as I have come to recognize the myriad insecurities which drive my ego in its relentless attempts to control everyone and everything in the world, the word artist has settled into my consciousness, and I have tried in some imperfect way to “create a perfect expression” of my experience through my play. I wish very much for Merton and Me to be something you might “flee to,” to have that experience that “we all had as a kid.” I believe with all my heart in the power of storytelling, particularly live storytelling, to disrupt the ruts that have developed in our minds. To comfort and console our hearts that are aching from the wounds that we have absorbed over the years. I believe that it is possible to gather in a room as adults and be immersed in the joys and sorrows of someone else’s story while simultaneously reflecting on our own, with no judgment, no demands, no need to FIX anything. Just an opportunity to be together in community with the desire to be more loving, more honest with ourselves, more fully human.

One final quote from Brooks’ column, “You give me somebody who disagrees with me on every issue, but who has a good heart — who has the ability to sympathize with others, participate in their woes, longings and dreams — well, I want to stay with that person all day. You give me a person who agrees with me on every particular, but who has a cold, resentful heart — well, I want nothing to do with him or her.”

May we all commit ourselves to “fleeing” to those outlets, whatever they might be, which teach us to “sympathize with others, to participate in their woes, longings and dreams.” And may we pray for the daily discipline and strength to taste and see those parts of ourselves that are cold and resentful, and which prevent us from loving each other for no other reason than because we are all a part of the same human family.

Some additional pictures from Colombia, January 2019

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira

Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica, Bogota

Museum of Gold, Bogota

Monserrate, Bogota

Monserrate, Bogota

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