The Inuit have an approach to carving, one shared with many other cultures. They believe that the image already exists in the stone. Their job is to take the other bits away.
For people who learned to create with Play-Doh, this doesn’t make sense. They know how to make a sculpture by adding bits to the shape, extending and moulding it.
In shaping a life, the same approaches apply.
Do we take what we have and add to it, put another layer over it, create something between what we have now and what we imagine ourselves being? Is the proper approach to creation making a mask, something to cover what we want to hide, something in the shape of what we think is an ideal us?
Or do we take what we have and remove the bits that have been laid on, the bits that are not who we really are? Do we assume that during a lifetime, we have become encrusted with an agglomeration of social expectations, training, and habits, much like a city construction wall becomes piled thick with posters?
The removal approach can seem terrifying. One slip and we might cut away something important, something essential in the stone. Adding seems much safer, at least until the weight of our additions causes the material to slip and we have to think about the underlying structure, the armature underneath.
In sculpture, the voids are at least as important as the remaining material, maybe more. Voids create lightness and elegance, piercing and penetrating to reveal shape and texture.
Humans are also defined by our voids. Our spaces between create the structure of our approach to the world, not only making our weaknesses but also our strengths. Every gift we have is both a blessing and a burden, giving us unique abilities and causing us unique problems.
The social approach to normalize everyone becomes a challenge in this regard. We are often told that we must work on our weaknesses in an attempt to become cross-trained and interchangeable with other people. It is easy to find someone’s flaws and point them out, easy to think that is the most kind thing we can do for other people. After all, don’t they want to be whole and well rounded?
Focusing not on our weaknesses but rather on our strengths takes a different mindset. It requires seeing people as unique and powerful, requires a belief that the best thing that we can do is to help them polish, aggrandize and strengthen their gifts as a way to strengthen the power of the whole.
For a culture that works in village based units, this makes perfect sense. We don’t need interchangeable people, we need a wide range of strong skills, even if that also means we have a wide range of weaknesses. The strength of us is in our complimentary skills, in the unit, not in the normalization of one individual.
Machine made cultures see this differently. Iconoclasts are a pain, regularity makes things simple, following the strict rules in the franchise handbook.
In the end, humans create lives using both techniques. We need to pull away our weaknesses to create a strong framework and then layer on skills and cultural conventions to flesh out our roles in the world. We are not either-or people.
For many people, though, getting stripped down to their bare skeleton, having the bits they have accumulated in an attempt to create a pretty façade is a tough ask. We have spent years gathering, moulding, so the call to peel that back, searching for the rot and weakness in our underlying armature is hard.
Getting older, though, requires this process. We can’t just continue to imagine that we can be anyone we want to be. Instead, we have to take a hard look at who we really are, have to make hard choices about what is solid, powerful and flawed, what is flimsy, rotting and outdated.
The notion that we have have to go back and throw away what we loved, that we have to kill our darlings, that we have to expose our weaknesses to reveal our strengths is very hard. Rejoicing in bits we used to see as artifacts of our sickness and victim-hood is not something that is easy to do.
In the end, though, we are not who we wish to be, not the way we have tried to homogenize and surface ourselves to look flawless in the world.
We are the image in the rock and our voids, shorn of the bits that are not us, show the gifts we have in the world, become the matrix for the jewels of a lifetime.
The goal of a lifetime is not to become a rock encrusted with crud. Rather it is to become a pebble shaped by a lifetime in the river, smoothed and polished by crashes and comfort to reveal a beautiful, revealed inner shape.
Our voids are the other side of our strengths. Only by letting the filler drop away can we end up revealing and revelling in the elegant shape left by the mark of our creator and a lifetime of very personal choices.
We are not our shell. We are what starts locked inside, only to be exposed by the process of living a human life, letting the false drop away, becoming boldly and beautifully ourselves.
What a delight to find that we were in there all the time.