Friday, March 12, 2010

On Following Your Moral Compass

During the spring in my senior year of high school in 1995, I was depressed. Like many adolescents transitioning to college, I had a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty about who I wanted to be and how I was going to achieve such.

Now, as an art therapist working largely with children and their families, I know that the primary developmental task of adolescence is to figure out who one is. Looking back however, at that time I did not know that such was okay and in fact perfectly normal for an 18 year old girl to be undecided about well, quite a few things.

One place where I did feel 'myself' was in art class. I was good at art, and it came naturally. I loved that I had the freedom to make whatever I wanted. It also helped that my art teachers were wonderful, never judgemental, and seemed to know that art making met an emotional need for their students that had no substitute. That last semester in art class, we were working on figure painting. Two boys in our class modeled for our paintings. They were clothed of course - this was high school people, come on.

My painting ended up looking admittedly odd. At that time, I couldn't articulate what the painting meant to me, I just knew it was important. I don't even remember if I gave it a title. I do remember a friend of my parents jokingly calling it "No Guts; No Glory".

After that summer I went on to attend college and majored in painting at the University of Kansas. The four hour drive from my college to my small hometown seemed like light years away. College was a time of several major transformations for me. I was in art school in a small Midwestern College town in the comparatively prosperous late 90's. It was a crazy, decadent time and I made lots of crazy, decadent art.

By the time I finished college the pendulum had swung the other way and I was back to running, and being that strange combination of an artist-athlete-nerd. After graduation, my friend Laurel and I celebrated with a girls road trip through Kansas and Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico and back.

One of the more striking aspects of our trip for me was when we stopped in Alamosa, CO to look at the sand dunes. Our stop was by accident. We took pictures and I felt an eerie sense that something had come full circle. The sand dunes were like the landscape in my painting back in high school. What is even stranger is that I had very short hair at the time and was dressing rather androgynous, and happened to wear a white t-shirt and jeans that day. I felt like I was the figure in my painting! I made Laurel take a picture of me posing as the figure had posed in the painting - of course now I can' t seem to find it so you, dear reader, will just have to take my word for it.

Back at home, looking at the pictures I felt even more sure that something significant had taken place at the sand dunes. I felt like it was a message from the universe that I was headed on the right path. I also started referring to my weird painting as a "pre-cognitive painting" - meaning that I had painted a moment prior to it occurring in real life/real time.

This blog is starting to sound a little new-agey, huh? Okay, back on track. The sand dunes and how they seemed so much like what I had painted almost 5 years before, while significant to me, is not really the point of my post today. What I am getting to, is musing on a moral compass.

I first heard the term 'moral compass' from my friend Gini Dietrich. Gini shared that she knows when she is close to veering from her moral compass - she can feel it - in her gut. Many times Gini has told me how on the rarer occasions, when she hasn't 'gone with her gut', she has come to regret it. I think Gini has finely tuned a sensibility that we all posses, we just need to practice getting in touch with it.

In recent years I've come to the conclusion that the figure in my weird high school painting was lacking a locus of control, a center. If you look closely, you can see the innards of the figure are woven into with the landscape, implying perhaps that the figure is seeking completion outside of himself. That's EXACTLY how I remember feeling at that time. Now that I work with adolescents, I know that these kinds of feelings go hand in hand with being a teenager.

This last image came very recently after I had a series of experiences in my personal and professional life where I felt I really had to hone my moral compass. Sometimes honing one's moral compass means standing up for your yourself, even if doing so creates conflict with people who you hold in high esteem.

This image is far less androgynous and has a compass right in her gut to guide her. She has better boundaries and is more self-assured - we don't see her organs strewn about the landscape. I hope to create a more polished piece, maybe a painting based on this sketch soon. Till then...shhhh....wait...can you hear that? It's your gut, listen to it.


@katjaib said...

Erin, I LOVE this post. And your candor. Thanks for sharing some of your own journey with us. Love how the last drawing has her compass in her gut. That's exactly where it's located! As my lifelong friend Jannie always said to me, "When is the last time that listening to your gut got you in trouble?" Answer: Never!

Gini Dietrich said...

Kat is so right - when was the last time that listening to your gut got you in trouble?

See what skiing does for us? We have these talks that turn into blog posts!

The moral compass is so much more than just a gut check. It's a gut check and realizing that you never want to put your morals or values on the line because you're afraid to say no or you want to make a quick buck. Because I live by my own moral compass, I'm always shocked when someone does something that I perceive to be so unethical. I guess I'm also naive.

Erin Brumleve MA, LPC, ATR said...

Thanks Kat! I'm glad you liked the drawing. I always try to include images with the posts, because the images seem to get a point across that I'm not always able to do verbally, and of course for brevity - as the cliche goes, they contain a 1000 words!

Erin Brumleve MA, LPC, ATR said...

I completely agree, Gini! I think the moral compass is key for psychotherapists, entreprenuers, and established buisiness people alike. It's frustrating when folks cut corners ethically, but I also think it's positive that it's hard for you to wrap your mind around how someone could do so - it just goes to show that your brain/heart doesn't have a proclivity for that kind of action.

And I think its awesome that skiing can be 'productive' :)