“Lady Luck smiles on the few in this world,
I hope and I pray that she smiles on you.
I ain't gonna preach, no I ain't gonna teach;
I 'm just gonna sing about the things that I need:
A little bit of love, a little bit of hope;
A little bit of strength, some fuel for the fire.”
~ The Alarm, Deeside.
confidence and urgency
When progress is undiscernible, confidence is indispensable. Yet although progress and confidence need one another, these attributes are elusive, and there are no guarantees as to success. At least, confidence does not hinge upon outside approval. Individuals can derive their own courage, though it’s much easier said than done. Experience teaches me that confidence is abundant when it is not overtly needed, and that confidence is most needed when it is difficult to find. Feast or famine, and these are indeed deserted times for this burgeoning professional. By confidence, I refer to an unflappable, self-possessed inner assurance woven through one’s efforts and being. Last year, I wrote about what it means to sense the strength of one’s own forces, and that is surely tied to sustaining confidence. It is urgently needed now, as repeated defeats and rejected applications leave an erosive wake. Surely, I can find enough confidence now to continue trying- and even write about it- but I sense a depleting supply.
How is confidence restored, especially without success? How is determination maintained, the course kept, and hopes upheld- when no earthly rewards are assured? How to confidently navigate unwelcoming territory, and be simultaneously prosperous? By nature, crossroads and precipices prompt me to consider what has historically helped me to survive and find better circumstances. Not having material or influential privileges, I’ve relied on spiritual consolation, scholarship, writing, and creative imagination to endure hardships. There is no land in sight, and resources are thinning. When possible, over many years, I’ve made time for rejuvenating retreats. It’s important to know oneself, know what is constructive, and also know what to avoid. In addition, there is great advantage with changes of scenery and having friends outside of the daily confines. We are all able to encourage one another; we must all know that we are not alone. Among survival abilities is to find ways to look to an improved future- and to be willing to do so. Confidence is necessary fuel for the fire of meaningful life. St. Theophan wrote the following about the health of a soul’s ignited spirit:
“Cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you, and surround yourself with everything which can feed and fan it into a strong fire.”
Along with continually learning from my own lived precedents, there is also the active observer’s role. I try to retain the better things I’ve heard, seen, and read. These are parts of my inner arsenal called upon in times like these, and meant to be applied. In eleven concise sentences, the Forty-Sixth Psalm is an ancient, remarkable expression of calm resilience during unbridled turbulence. Amidst avalanches, ruptures, erosion, and desolation, there is a river whose tranquil streams will bless others and be blessed. Of this river, reads verse five, “she shall not be moved: God shall help her; and that right early.” The waters symbolize renewing life and grace. The waters run in a conduit, as with the human heart in an individual who calls to the Creator of all that lives, “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The petitioner must hold course, be still, and know, confident in the refuge of faith. Rootedness in the unseen demands all of a finite individual’s drive, but the cowering and hydroponic alternative is unappealing. The currents of the Holy Spirit carry the attentive soul to places of bold confidence.
Recently, I enjoyed a week’s residency at Beacon Hill Friends House, and studying at the Boston Athenaeum. Carving out time for reflection, reading, and writing has been my most effective way to renew. Staving off burnout, while struggling to build a life and career, is itself an occupational effort. And that uphill effort includes artistic expression, kindred souls, and written words. Among the Quaker community, I saw that familiar combination of conscientiousness and activism. Venturing in any distance, out of toxic trenches, helps to remind me that I’m not alone.
At the Athenaeum, my week allowed for an immersion into some adventurous memoirs from the 17th and 18th centuries, filled with accounts of endurance and inspiring words. These studies remain prominently in my musings through the days of respite. Among my shorter readings was a tract from 1829 by Robert Aspland, on the theme Courage and Confidence. He emphasized that confidence is safeguarded by those who love truth and keep faith with “an undaunted spirit, rising above oppression.” Aspland considered it an encouraging sight to behold others who were “cheered amidst reproach and persecution, by their own consciousness of rectitude and benevolence.” By virtue of our very pursuit of holiness, we can find confidence. Aspland wanted his listeners to take heart:
“Faith built upon knowledge is firm and durable, and not to be shaken by accidents and privations and pains of the present imperfect state of being- that the consciousness of laboring in a good cause imparts satisfaction and comfort to the mind.”
My studies in sources of old, pulled from the deepest archival recesses of the Athenaeum, provide new ideas, helping to retrain my thoughts to light the way ahead. And indeed they do remain with me, not just in my writing, but also while interpreting my days. Around the city, the concept of confidence continued appearing in front of me. Various friends showed me how they participate in meal preparations, to feed thousands of people in need, from their bases of operation in large church kitchens.
In surely much lighter and more ephemeral ways, I noticed something about self-confidence appearing in the local sports pages during my morning coffee. As it happens in competitive sports, success breeds success. Hockey is especially a game of momentum. Apparently the struggling Boston Bruins, “were in the midst of a crisis of confidence,” so wrote Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald. The next day’s Herald included this remark by Stephen Harris about rebuilding the team: “That’s a multi-year endeavor that requires faith and patience and can be ruined by short-term, emotional desperation.” The team was losing a lot of close games, and their numerous shots-on-goal were undisciplined. The players talked about “going out there and finding ways to win.”
Suddenly they started winning their games. The morning after an unusual come-from-behind win, Chris Mason of the Herald observed how the Bruins were “emotionally connected to this game.” That hard-won confidence had to be built upon. More victories followed, yet the players seemed too humbled to swagger; but they owned their confidence. David Backes, a forward, observed, “A level of consistency has gone up, a level of execution, a level of belief.” Another forward, Frank Vatrano added, “We’re just playing. We’re not worried about making mistakes.” Their coach, Bruce Cassidy, stressed they must “ err on the side of aggression,” and, “keep up the emotion and confidence level.” These athletes are using language not unfamiliar in philosophy and theology.
It takes profound discipline to cast aside flame-quenchers like a philosopher, and to keep up the confidence level like a hockey player. Conscientious individuals must decide how, when, or whether to compromise. Our workplaces are too often wildernesses of distrust and uneven ethics. Confidence is difficult to build amidst environments that undermine and undercut. Some have enough wealth and good fortune to walk away from hostile situations; the rest of us are forced to stand straight through indignity- and the rarer souls find ways to achieve along dead-end streets. The insistence upon accomplishment amidst belligerence implies the collateral damage of absorption and erosion. It is a solitary crucible, rarely comprehended- even by the survivor.
Reading back through recent years’ journals, a phrase caught my attention. Giving myself some advice, I wrote, “Create pockets of stability amidst inhospitable places.” These may take the forms of creative ventures, but they can also be work projects and transactions. Encouraging sparks come by way of the enthusiastic responses from those I serve. Confidence must be cobbled together with ingredients such as gracious words, beautiful scenery, savory tastes, and gratifying tasks. Another learned survival measure is to conjure up confidence by taking long views ahead.
By looking ahead, even if not at anything specific, I make efforts to see beyond these present trials. The looking becomes quite tangible, as I naturally reach for my lifelong language of photography, going to ocean ledges and city streets. Using different cameras allows me to change the ways I see. I’d like to know that I can transcend the limitations of what has been, and stretch them into what can be. My years since graduate school have been fraught with looking for improved and sustaining employment. Productive endurance while ceaselessly prospecting is as demanding as it is daunting. Perceiving beyond limitations and rejections is nothing less than vital- and I must persevere. While out photographing, I’m reminded of having practiced the craft since childhood. I’m self-taught, and made a living by it for fourteen years, rising to the top of my profession. Economics and a dying field forced a career change, and short of a miracle this may be happening again. The tension of a low-pulse job market, excruciating employment situations, and the passage of time recalls the torrents threaded by the calm river of the 46th Psalm. The wincing, writhing brand of tolerance is not effectively tranquil; that will not do, and it is strangely the opposite of confidence. For me, the object of this trial is to reach that better situation without bitterness or discouragement, emerging the better for having endured.