I have loved art for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I preferred solitary activities like reading, playing with Lego and art. Art though, unlike my other pastimes, was something that could be shared with others. My work was appreciated by my peers, even those who otherwise taunted or ignored me. My family also took pride in my art, and my parents, who dreamed of me becoming a doctor or engineer, patiently and generously bought me art supplies throughout my youth and undergrad. And they resigned themselves to the fact that the ‘hobby’ they thought I’d outgrow is something that I’m passionate about.
I eventually finished my art degree and ‘grew up,’ internalizing the widespread belief that art is simply a frivolous pastime with no viable career opportunities. I entered academia. Anytime I felt a sense of longing for art, I’d convince myself that it wasn’t that important to me.
Recently, while browsing a used book store, I found a copy of “An Illustrated Life” by Danny Gregory in mint condition. The watercolour illustrations inside, from the sketchbooks and journals of various artists, inspired me to buy not only the book, but soon after a travel watercolour set and a new sketchbook. I began illustrating my journal, although not very often. Art journaling alone felt like an unsatisfying substitute for the ‘real’ thing and I found my entries dwindling, especially as I fell into a rough time personally and began falling back into my unwanted behaviors again. A coaching call with ustadh Zeyad Ramadan helped me slowly start getting back on track, Alhamdulillah.
I received a much needed boost when a professor commissioned me to create two artworks. They were the first ‘real’ paintings I had done in years and I was engrossed in getting the Islamic geometric patterns and calligraphy just right. I was present. Presence is something I have always struggled with, but I only realized it once I started my journey of healing.
While painting, I had absolutely no urge to check my email or my phone or ‘escape’ in any other way. For the very first time, I felt truly present without any conscious effort. I’ve finally realized that art is essential to my healing and I can no longer undermine its significance.
I bought new professional quality watercolours and used gift money to buy books on Islamic art and watercolour painting. I am now making and selling watercolour cards. And just recently, Dr. Sayyed Hossain Nasr spoke about geometric patterns and their integral role in spirituality and worship. Finally, art doesn’t seem frivolous and I am so excited at the opportunity to fully embrace and explore this gift that Allah SWT has blessed me with, Insha’Allah.
So you may be thinking [especially if you’re not an artist] “How does this relate to my healing from unwanted sexual behaviors? What are the ‘lessons?”
Well, there’s presence and finding a healthy outlet. There’s the realization that as long as we’re not transgressing the bounds of Allah SWT, we must to do what makes us happy, instead of living by others’ expectations and perceptions of who we are and what we should be.
And I’d like to conclude with this powerful quote from another Daniel Gregory book, The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. The title is pretty self-explanatory but one section in particular, titled “What Happens When you Stifle Creativity?” has been hugely impactful on me and is what inspired me to write this article in the first place.
Here’s an excerpt:
The ability and the need to be creative are hard-wired into all of us…Yet an awful lot of people are able to suppress it…They jump to conclusions about themselves and their abilities and their obligations that they think will help them avoid conflict. They make certain choices that they think will prevent others from being disappointed, shocked, or angry. But deep inside them, a little ember flickers. That ember is their dream, the thing they could really like to do, if only…they lock that little spark in a big steel box, hoping to suffocate it once and for all…but the ember won’t go out…it gets hotter and the feeling turns to pain. So they reach for an anesthetic…
(Gregory, 2006, p. 10)
Gregory then lists some common ‘anesthetics’- drugs, alcohol, TV, destructive behaviors, or in our case, pornography and sexually acting out. No matter which drug[s] we choose, they all serve one purpose: “to take us away from experiencing the here and now, from being in touch with our true nature” (p. 10).
I remember reading and re-reading this passage of the book, realizing how stifling our creative nature plays a major role in acting out and seeking ‘anesthetics’. I’m not arguing (and neither is Gregory) that everyone is a visual artist. But I believe that all of us are creative by nature. Whether it’s photography, cooking, gardening, singing, poetry, etc., we all have the urge to create something beautiful. For some of us it has been realized and for others, it may still be suppressed.
My healing journey is a true gift Alhamdulillah and one of the greatest blessings for me is that it has solved the “problem” of how to remain an artist. I hope and pray Insha’Allah that regardless of where you are on your healing journey, and whether or not you consider yourself an “artist”, you too will be inspired to discover and pursue whatever creative activities you find fulfilling.