Letting My True Self Lead
I would sit on our front porch, my lap filled with jean cutoffs and a bundle of embroidery threads. For hours I'd create sunflowers, peace signs, and butterflies across a canvas of Levi blue.
Back then I remember returning home stoned, to my family seated at the dinner table, "Leave It to Beaver" style, with my empty chair waiting. As I sat, I hoped against hope that my friends told the truth when they insisted that, unlike cigarettes, marijuana smoke was undetectable.
Last year, when a friend and I swapped rebellious-youth stories, I realized that when I stopped smoking pot, I stopped embroidering my jeans.
Creativity was a huge part of my childhood. I filled canvases with modern art and reams of wide-ruled notebook paper with Poe-like prose. Yet in my 14-year-old mind, when I came back to Jesus, I reasoned that I needed to flush my artistic bent down the toilet along with my stash. And the loss has taken a toll on what Thomas Merton might call my "true self"— the self that is made in God's image to do what God has gifted me to do
As my friend and I sipped our coffee and chewed on my discovery, I suddenly understood why I relentlessly fill my house with art. My true self longs to surround itself with beauty. And I also need to get my hands dirty (or fingers tired) in creating it. Psychologist David Benner writes in The Gift of Being Yourself, "God does not seek to annihilate our uniqueness as we follow Christ. Rather, Christ-following leads us to truest self."
These days, my creative side shows up more, and it occasionally spills over as a true voice into my writing and speaking. Its effect is can-hardly-sleep freeing, and the results have been, well, beautiful.
This past fall, a colleague asked me to teach a workshop on writing. Previously my writing lectures resembled talks delivered by an English professor or literature teacher. Only occasionally would I reveal embroidered-jeans Lesa. But this time I determined to try on "true self."
I put the talk away for a while. Because when I opened the document on my laptop screen, I found I had hidden myself safely behind name-dropping of famous authors I knew, clever quotes, and grammar rules.
Thankful for second chances, I trashed my notes and opted for narratives: My childhood of scribbling stories while dipping grilled cheese sandwiches in Campbell's tomato soup; my mad jealousy of Flannery O'Conner's wordsmithing; and my recent epiphany that my tattoo would be a word because I love words. Above all else, I ended each point wooing my listeners to write from the bent of their own gloriously naked true self.
A few weeks later, I received the workshop attendees' evaluations. Usually such evaluations fail to serve as ego boosters. Yet when I braved reading them, I choked up as I identified an almost comically repeated theme: "It encouraged me." "Inspired me." "She lit a fire under every attendee." And my favorite: "Maybe I really should submit a story." Being my truest self had unleashed a room full of writers.
In his small but potent book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, "Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch."
Can we talk? As leaders, what would it look like for us to live from a place of authenticity and beckon others to discover their true selves? Here are three suggestions.
Try it on. I took baby steps in returning to my artsy self. For me, it meant adding a touch of tie-dye to my otherwise button-down businesswoman wardrobe. It was scary and yet fun to watch people's reactions. Why not try on your inner Mother Teresa, your best Jerry Seinfeld-ish sketch, or your closet geekiness?
Grow in community. With safe friends, read together Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak. Then ask hard questions: What have you stopped doing that was truly you, as a child? If you chose to be who you really are, do you think God could use you? What have you lost in being unfaithful to your true self?
Find a circle of influence. Gather a group and recite together Psalm 139:13-18. Then discuss how this passage might look different for each person. Or host a grownups story time and read the children's book Ish by Peter Reynolds. It's a lump-in-your-throat tale of the power of encouraging true self in others. Ask for reactions. Trust me, there will be plenty.
True Self Benediction If you are so inclined, breathe deeply and pray to your Creator:
Give me a candle of the spirit, O God
As I go down into the deep of my
Show me the hidden things. Take me
Down to the spring of my life, and
Tell me my nature and my name.
Give me freedom to grow so that I
May become my true self—the
Fulfillment of the seed which you
Planted in me at my making.
Out of the deep I cry unto thee, O
"Gathering Prayer" by Bishop George Appleton
Lesa Engelthaler is a senior associate for Victory Search Group, assisting nonprofit organizations to recruit executive leaders. She's also freelance writer and chair of Synergy's National Advisory Council.