A number of my college classes took field trips to the Art Institute of Chicago. After completing my assignments and touring the collections, I always made my way to The Old Guitarist by Picasso where I’d sit for a hours in an out-of-the-way corner. A steady stream of people visited the painting, many seeming to almost miss the guitarist himself as they searched for the ghostly face peering over the back of his neck, evidence of an earlier painting on the same canvas.
In all the hours I spent with The Old Guitarist, I could never decide whether it was a painting of hope or despair. I didn’t know whether the guitar was his lone companion or whether there was a rapt audience just beyond the edge of the frame. Maybe that’s why I kept coming back. He couldn’t be summed up in a couple of words. He wasn’t just a picture to look at but a person to be known.
At the annual back-to-school poster sale at my college I purchased my own Picassos—cheap prints of The Old Guitarist and Blue Nude —to hang in my dorm room. My roommate thought they were creepy, but I never tired of looking at them.
Those paintings didn’t give me answers, but they raised questions about how I viewed other people’s humanity and my own. Their rawness made me want to see beyond the paintings to know the people depicted.
It was refreshing to see people who weren’t pretending to have it all together. They weren’t dressed up and gracefully posed with gentle smiles. I saw people with unknown depths who weren’t hiding—or at least weren’t hiding that they were hiding. I saw people I had something in common with if only we could talk.
There was so much I wished I could ask. I filled a page in my journal with questions for the blue nude, asking her about everything from her deepest secrets to the most mundane trivia. What is your greatest fear? When is the last time someone told you you’re beautiful? Do you like spinach?
My final question on the page was what do you want to know about me?
I wanted to be known, to be seen for who I am instead of as the perfect (or perfectly flawed) person I was pretending to be. I think deep down we all do. Yet I shrank away from other people’s curiosity and didn’t even dare ask myself who I really was. What if I wasn’t someone worth knowing?
That’s not to say I didn’t ask myself questions, but the questions I asked didn’t lead to deeper self-knowledge. Why can’t I be who I’m supposed to be? What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I care about the things that make a person successful? Why can’t I be more outgoing and likeable?
The unspoken questions I asked of others weren’t driven by curiosity but by fear. What do you think is the right opinion? What are your expectations of me? Is this good enough? Who do I need to be for you to love me? Again and again my need to feel safe and accepted won out over my longing to know and be known.
I lived that way for many years, but shutting down my curiosity didn’t make life less scary or unpredictable. It mostly made it lonely.
Now I’m working with a coach who stands with me as I learn to ask better questions and to listen for authentic answers. Instead of asking why I’m not who I think I’m supposed to be, I’m getting really curious about who I am.
After all that time of dodging and hiding, it can be hard to listen for my answers even when I’m brave enough to ask. As I keep asking, I’m learning that it’s ok to know who I am. It’s ok to be who I am.
Learning to wonder and ask gives me a glimpse into the vastness of all the things I don’t know. But being curious isn’t about getting it all figured out. I’m glad I’ll always have more questions than answers—it means there’s always more to discover.
When I listen for the song of the old guitarist or the whispers of the blue nude, I’m really listening with a holy curiosity to discern my own true voice and yours through all the noise of fear and expectations.
So now I’m curious…What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? What is the one thing you would change about yourself if you could? What is your favorite color?
What do you want to know about me?