That's Not What You Are:
by Jennifer Paros
Years ago, I was in art school and the art department was having a
Juried Show in which students submit pieces by hanging them in the
hallway, where a professional artist selects the winners for
display. I was, at the time, frightened of this idea, and hadn’t
ever chosen to submit anything for consideration until the day I
made a painting in class that my professor suggested I enter.
Although I was pleased about the positive attention, my insecure
self, inclined to hiding, was not so sure about the opportunity.
Waves of anxiety rushed through me as I worked, with my teacher, to
prepare the painting for display. It was a medium-sized painting on
a wooden board.
The day came and I went about the business of hanging my piece,
although I did so through a storm of emotional upheaval and nerves.
I have no memory of a moment of strain or spasm while striving to
get that painting up on the wall and yet, sometime after, I was to
suffer with the worst back pain of my life. I was twenty-five years
old and over the next months found myself unable to sit comfortably
for more than ten minutes at a time, was at the chiropractor twice a
week, and was sometimes so incapacitated as to be in tears as my
fiancé (now my husband) undressed and got me into a hot bath because
I could not bend enough to be able to remove so much as a shoe.
In cause and effect thinking, the summation would be: “Well, you
really screwed up your back when you lifted that painting.” And
perhaps this is true, yet I believe there is more.
Somehow, although the opportunity to potentially be a part of an
art show was a NICE thing, I was running a story in my head that
wasn’t so nice. And the nature of the story had to do with a
perception that what I produce or do is reflective of my value.
Unawares, I had made the decision that my sense of self was made
vulnerable when another steps in to judge my work. Framed with that
belief, the painting became heavy in my psyche, representing an
untrue view of myself that was ultimately pain-producing. Just as
the straight-A student can act like those straight A’s define her as
special and of great value, the truth is the value of that
student goes way beyond those grades. In comparison to what she
really is, those grades are a pittance. They’re really nothing.
The value of the individual is deep and resonant and exists with or
without “great” or “poor” achievement and validation in the external
In writing the same issues are operative. The book we write is, at
best, something of our own perception, insight, and connection
we wish to share; it is reflective of a tiny quality portion of all
that we have to offer. But our value remains way beyond anything we
can do, say, or present.
Whether we are currently thinking we are great because of
how we look, act, or what we do, or that we are inadequate
because of how we look, act, or what we do, we are suffering from a
misperception. Humans create all kinds of things ranging from what
we consider beautiful to what we consider awful, but our value is to
be found in none of that.
Our writing is communication – conversation with ourselves, life,
our perceptions, and ultimately, an audience. But our value is that
which is core and does not and cannot turn off or run out when we
Recently, my youngest son and I got into a contentious exchange and
I started letting off steam. My tone and approach had become
negative and reactive when he managed to yell out: “That’s not what
And I thought, He’s right. Beyond this one moment of
behavior, which he and I both were witnessing, there was something
much better and more authentic within me. I consider these the
kindest words he could have spoken at that moment, for instead of
choosing to attack what I was presenting, he chose instead to
redirect my attention to what I really am and its value.
so, whether we’re looking at our painting, assessing our manuscript,
whether we’re giving ourselves an “A” or crushing our hopes with a
“E” in appearance or behavior, let us strive to remember: That’s
not what we are. For these are the kindest and truest words
one can say to oneself or another because our value is great and
remains within us always, regardless.
Jennifer Paros is a writer,
illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House
(Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.