The Artist and the Activist

I have always been jealous of the natural artist. If you can sketch a perfect likeness of something onto a scrap of paper…if you can sing like the angels…if you can pick up a guitar and teach yourself how to play it…then I pretty much hate you. The artist has something I’ve always longed for: The ability to devote herself to the creation of something beautiful and have that thing actually be beautiful by the time she is finished.

I’ve never seen myself as a natural artist. But I’ve always felt a thrill when I’ve allowed myself to create. How strange, then, that in recent years I’ve spent so much energy denying myself the pursuit of creative endeavors.

There was a time when all I wanted to be was a writer. It’s what I did in my spare time. It’s what made me come alive. It fed my soul.

It’s no wonder that when I headed off to college, I planned to major in English. That plan changed in the matter of a semester, however. I started volunteering in the local community, and by so doing, I found that oppression broke my heart more than written words could mend. Writing was no longer enough for me. I needed to do something. The world was hurting, and it could not wait to be healed. So I switched majors to social work. Then I got a graduate degree. Then I worked in social services for four years.

I’ve been recovering ever since.

It’s not that I regret my decision to pursue social work, or that I no longer desire to see justice for the poor and marginalized. What I do regret, though, is the lie I’ve been believing ever since that day I switched my major: That my writing and my creativity isn’t enough. That one part of my heart must be expressed only at the expense of the other. That these are separate things, and not actually two halves of one whole.

Relinquishing this lie is so difficult. As a social worker, I can measure my efforts to make a difference in the world. Things are more tangible, more visible. But as a writer, I can’t define the impact I’m making. I can’t know for sure whether my words are making a difference to any single human being. I find I long so desperately for this assurance, and I struggle with guilt when I invest my time in anything that doesn’t lead to it. At the same time, I know the person I am when I reject my desire to write, my passion to create. I am imbalanced. I am incomplete.

I am exhausted.

My words may never actually heal the societal wounds of poverty, oppression, and prejudice. My writing may never produce a measurable outcome that can be studied, examined, and replicated for future success. But I have to believe that I’m wired this way for a reason. I have to believe that there is something inherently pure and holy about engaging in the art of creation and intertwining that with a longing for activism and social change. I haven’t quite figured out what this looks like yet, or how exactly I can use it for the good of mankind. But while I’m working that out, I do know that I don’t want to deny the artist within me. I don’t want her to suffocate, to wither away and die from neglect.

I want to make art.

And I want to make change.

And so I will keep striving for both of these things, together, until I see them happen.