I once knew an artist who told me about a sculpture he wanted to carve out of wood. He said he had a vision for it in his mind’s eye. Then a week passed. And then two. And then three. I assumed he was procrastinating.
When I asked him about it, he smiled and said, “Kelly, I can’t create what I want to create in just any block of wood. Every piece of wood has different grains and different textures. If you carve against the grain—try to force it into something it is not—you will crack the wood and ruin the sculpture. The shape of any creation is already in the wood. I just help it to become the shape that it already is.”
It’s true of wood, and it’s true of people.
You already are what you are becoming.
It’s not a new idea. As someone once said, all wisdom is borrowed. But it was new to me when I first encountered it in Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, where the spiritual guide writes,
I can only look for something that I have, to some degree, already found. How can I search for beauty and truth unless that beauty and truth are already known to me in the depth of my heart? …We were innocent before we started feeling guilty; we were in the light before we entered into the darkness; we were at home before we started to search for a home. Deep in the recesses of our minds and hearts there lies hidden the treasure we seek.
It was the most transformative idea I’d ever encountered. I looked inside of myself, and I looked around, and I saw that we all long to do something good that will prove we’re good enough. We long to be loved by someone who will make us feel loveable. We long to create something out in the world that will create a worthy identity inside of us.
But we already are that which we long to become.
We already are our own unique version of good enough, loveable, and worthy.
Life isn’t about identity formation; it’s about identity recognition. Being human isn’t about finding an existence worth living, it’s about finding out how to live from the worthiness already existing within us.
You don’t build what you are; you chip away at what you are not.
We are, each of us, like blocks of wood, and becoming our true selves is the gradual process of carving away the excess and steadily becoming more and more the shape of what we already are. We spend too much time trying to carve against the grain of who we are—a kind of on-going self-rejection, a way of stubbornly insisting we aren’t good enough and we need to become something different.
Discovering our true selves begins by trusting there is a shape buried within us, and it is already good enough, loveable, and worthy.
Several weeks after I asked my artist friend about his delay, I spoke with him again, and he was giddy with excitement. He told me he’d found what he thought was the right piece of wood, and he’d begun his work. He was thrilled, because he was about to watch the beauty emerge. And his happiness was grace, because grace is the delight that happens when someone or Someone sees us and sees the beautiful shape already residing somewhere within us.
Grace doesn’t necessarily change anything about us; it simply sees who we’ve always been.
And grace creates places of belonging—spaces of carving—where we join with those who can see who we are and what we are becoming, to carve out of all our unnecessary parts—all the confusion and false starts and loneliness and self-rejection—even as we join them in the carving out of who they are.
All of us are worthy of people like that. Because you may be a mess, but you’re also, already, what you are becoming. You are beautiful, and you are beloved.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.