Focus Found: Life at the Intersection of Theology, Therapy, and Photography

 

Our Journeys

My journey has wound from social work to seminary; from traditional churches with buildings to a tent-making pastorate that doesn’t even own a tent. Professionally, I’m a therapist and, at times, a chaplain. But one constant on my journey has been photography. And not surprisingly—since God owns all Truth—I’ve noticed an intersection at which theology, therapy and photography meet.

Photography, like most things, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Digital cameras have replaced film, and dark rooms have yielded to color printers, but the art of photo composition has remained much the same. Life, too, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, yet the art of composing a life remains subject to some timeless principles. The intersection of the two can be seen in the application of the rules of photo composition to the compositon of a life.

Focus cf. Field Of View:  Weathered Boot on Fencepost copy.jpg

Every photograph has a focus. Even if many things are present in the picture, something is the subject; the object of focus (even if out of focus). It is “the point” of the picture. Other things are in the field of view or confines of the frame, as well. But some of those things, whether “zoomed” out at the time of the shot or cropped out later in editing, are eliminated from the field of view. Not that they’re unworthy of being photographed; they’re just not the photographer’s focus. Having too many subjects in a field of view does not enhance a photograph, but clutters it. Rather than a piece of richly focused art, a picture with too many subjects is like a snapshot from a moving car.

Life is like that. No one can do everything. The confines of a twenty-four hour day and of a limited lifespan force us to eliminate some things from our “fields of view” – whether by accident or by choice (focus). In the realm of therapy, the niche of career counseling is devoted to helping people find their “sweet spot” – that area of career focus that will mostly likely give them personal satisfaction and “success” (however measured). Spiritually speaking, scripture tells us to focus on one master to the exclusion of others: “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15).  Jesus said (shamelessly paraphrased), “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all other things will come into proper focus.” Likewise, Paul commends Christians to humbly take up their gifting in the Body of Christ and not try to serve with gifts that are not theirs (1 Corinthians 12).

The movie, City Slickers had it right when hardened cowboy “Curly” looked at Billy Crystal and said that the secret to life is “one thing.” Billy Crystal asked, “What’s the one thing?” Curly responded “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Smart cowboy. Focus. Decide what is the focus—whether of a life or of a photograph—then decide what to reduce or eliminate. Decide what enriches, and what merely clutters.

If there is one focus to life that is found in both theology and therapy, it is relationships… relationship with God and relationships with people. No matter what else is might be our focus, relationships are everyone’s essence of life. Life began in relationship with God, continues utterly dependent upon a parent or caregiver, is influenced and enriched along the way by those who shape us (and we them), and will likely end dependent again upon someone’s care. Relationships… by design they are the ultimate focus of life. Whatever else is in our field of view, those things must not be allowed to eliminate relationships. If they do, then we wind up trading the essence of life for something less; possibly even only clutter.

Space: Girl releasing dove in Fog along Brush Creek, Plaza.jpg

The open space in a photograph corresponds to where the action is headed. Given the direction the subject is “facing” or moving toward, the well-composed photograph leaves open space in that direction. So it is with life. Space is having margin that allows us to move in the direction of our focus. An enjoyable life has space to grow in the ways that interest us; space in the direction of our “calling.”

Leading lines:Fence row in fog with telephone poles.jpg
Sometimes, photographs include “lines” that lead the eye, much like architects and landscape artists place elements in their design to draw the eye to some areas and away from others. In life, the trick is to realize that there are lines. We are always being drawn to some areas of focus and away from others; the question is whether we want to be drawn in the direction the lines are leading us. Who placed the lines there? Why? Can they be trusted? Did they have an ulterior motive in creating those lines and drawing our attention? What is at the end result of the lines suggested, versus other lines we could follow? Are there other lines to consider, that are more trustworthy? Which lines go in the direction that our face is set (our focus)?

Illumination: Family riders near Liberty Memorial

Lighting can make the difference between a piece of art photography and a throwaway snapshot. Professional photographers will wait for hours for just the right lighting, often choosing sunrise or sunset to capture the dramatic shadows naturally illuminating subjects that would otherwise appear dull. The light cast on a subject changes the subject’s appearance. And the difference between artificial light and natural light creates two totally different pictures of the same subject, even if taken seconds apart. A good photographer recognizes the importance of light to his or her subject and is intentional about its illumination.

In the same way, life is illuminated. Similar to noticing the lines in photo composition, it is wise to notice the “light” in which a subject is cast. Is it “true light” or “artificial light?” Has an artificial light made something more attractive than it really is? Or less attractive? Has natural light brought out beauty that was hidden before, or hidden flaws in the shadows—perhaps where they should be? Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and Paul said that Satan “…masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)  Scripture, itself, can be illuminated by different kinds of light – historical light, linguistic, spiritual, critical, prayerful, volitional. The kind of light we shine on the Bible influences what we see. When reading scripture—or about scripture—pay attention to the light being applied. In counseling, likewise, therapists shine light on clients’ areas of concern, but they don’t necessarily use the same light. There are many theoretical schools from which counselors practice; the “light” they use to illuminate problems and solutions will vary, depending on the light that is applied. What is “seen” will determine treatment.

Contrast:Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts at night

A “striking” picture is likely one that  features contrasts. Hard/Soft. Dark/Light. Young/Old. Strong/Weak. Formal/Casual. Clean/Dirty. Serious/Playful.

Sometimes in life, we know best what something is, in contrast to what it is not. The value of life itself is most apparent in the face of death; we most appreciate warmth when we come in from the bitter cold; health is taken for granted until we experience illness or disability; and peace is sweetest on the day that war ends. The scriptures often describe what “is” by contrast to what is not. Jesus said that he came “not to judge the world, but to save it,” (John 3) and the Bible contrasts the light of Christ with the darkness of the world; the way of the Spirit to the nature of the flesh. Ironically, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which guides the world of mental health, contains numerous mental disorders, yet offers no definition of mental health. This lack of contrast leaves practitioners guessing—or making up—what is “normal.” Thus, to have Christ as an example of what God intended for human life is a great gift to mental health.

Emotion: Tree with heart.jpg

When someone just loves a picture or other work of art, it is because the image has evoked an emotion. Art carries with it a feeling. Art that connects with us affects our mood. It may bring us peace or sorrow, joy or anger, a sense of danger, or a respect for freedom. Whatever it is, we are drawn to the emotion evoked by the work. Likewise in life, even the most stoic person is motivated by emotion.

On the first day of class in my Masters in Counseling program, the professor asked, “What is more important… thoughts or feelings?” I was stumped. I wanted to say, “Both.” The answer, from a counseling perspective, is feelings. Why? Because they happen first in the brain. Emotions lead. They point. They point to important needs within us. Often, those needs are relational, such as acceptance, nurture, love, respect, safety, security, and belonging. When those attachment needs are met, we have a sense of peace, joy, and well-being. When those needs are not met—or are threatened—we experience fear, sadness, shame, or hurt… the negative primary emotions. These latter emotions are clues to what is amiss in our relationships. Ultimately, all of our attachment needs are met in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As it turns out, he is the ultimate Attachment Figure.

Another reason emotions are more important than thoughts is that we have all known “what we should do” and not done it. Why? Because we didn’t “feel” like it. We did (or didn’t do) as we did because “we felt like it.” This is especially true when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Yes, we’re intelligent, but emotions lead, and sometimes we just let them lead, despite knowing better. Even so great a Christian leader as the Apostle Paul knew this dilemma. In writing about the power of our corrupted human nature (the “flesh”), he said, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18,19). Even Paul at times found himself led by the flesh instead of by the Spirit; he did what he felt like doing, rather than what he knew he should do and even wanted to do. Emotions “lead” not only in the brain, but sometimes in life. The key is to recognize our feelings, whence they come, their power, and where they will lead us, if we let them.

So, photography has changed; and life has changed. But, the composition of a photograph—and of a life—have not changed. They are both still subject to the timeless principles of:

  • FOCUS – deciding what is important
  • FIELD OF VIEW – eliminating clutter
  • SPACE – leaving room in the direction we’re going
  • LEADING LINES – recognizing where we’re being drawn
  • ILLUMINATION – being intentional about the light we use
  • CONTRAST – clarifying by way of the opposite
  • EMOTION – noticing a human need
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