Not long ago, I was approached about the idea of starting a "spiritually-based" weekly support group for creative types working in the entertainment business. I dodged that suggestion like it was a flying dagger! This being L.A., I instantly pictured myself trapped in a room with a with a Born-Again Christian, an angry Jew, a bunch of sober alcoholics, a Scientologist, a Buddhist, a molested Catholic and at least one person practicing "The Secret." I was living in New York in the 80's when everyone I knew was chanting "Nom-yay-ray-kay" in the hope that it would bring them a Broadway show or job on a soap opera. In those days, I wasn't entirely sure I even believed there was such a thing as a "Higher Power." But if God did exist, I was fairly certain that he (or she) couldn't possibly give a damn whether or not I booked a pilot.
My father was a man of the cloth who left the ministry when I was fairly small (something for which I will always be grateful since there are few fates worse than being a small town preacher's kid). Papa, however, never lost his faith and there was rarely a Sunday we weren't all slumped in a church pew (me in my brown polyester suit). The churches we attended were always Pentecostal; complete with lots of speaking in tongues and congregants who seemed to share only one common denominator: tremendous personal hardship. There was lots of talk about sin, wrath, plagues and the unbearable agonies of Hell. Adding to levity, we frequently sang hymns where we referred to ourselves as "wretches" or "worms." I hated it. For me it was the spiritual equivalent of Guantanamo Bay and as I glanced around at my fellow detainees, I couldn't help wondering if I was the only one who thought this was all a huge crock of shit. As planned, the second I turned eighteen, I was on the first Greyhound out of there. I was a young man with plans. Big plans.
For most of my adult life, I avoided anything (and anybody) even vaguely "spiritual." Then about eleven years ago, I reluctantly agreed to accompany my neighbor to visit a local church. Much to my surprise, I liked it and went back with him the following week. It was a wildly liberal congregation and even after my friend lost interest, I continued going. The people were very nice and the place clearly needed some help. Faster than you could say, "Jesus wept," I found myself on the board of directors, where I helped spearhead some major repairs, fed some homeless people and staged some fairly successful fundraisers for AIDS and breast cancer awareness.
Needless to say, as time passed, the question of faith reared its head. I still wasn't sure what I thought about the whole idea of God, but it was hard not to respect the human journey I was witnessing. I was used to hanging around creative types who are always seeking something (It just goes with the territory). But when creative people don't know how to address their inner needs, it can quickly turn into icky self-absorption (and new headshots). This group was different. I was now among people who sought to fill an inner void by looking outward; by extending their hand to others. The work we did was taxing, morally complicated and never seemed to happen at a convenient time, but I began to see some parallels between their spiritual path and the one I was trying to hack out of the jungle of my own life.
Creativity is by definition an act of faith. I frankly don't know where I get the balls to sit down at this computer and attempt to write. Doubt is so ingrained into my personality, it's astounding that I ever finish anything. Somewhere along the line, it finally occurred to me that the only real responsibility I had was to express some form of truth. It didn't have to be universally "true," it just had to be personally true. It also helped me to realize that anything that emerges from my imagination is not uniquely my own; but is instead drawn from a vast well of human experience that shapes and defines us all. Much like life, the rules of creativity change daily. It's daunting, but not impossible to figure out. For every bucket I take from the well, I simply try to put one back.
I recently had coffee with a close friend who (after taking a stab at being an actor and then a teacher) is now training to be a couple's therapist. I was surprised to hear him express doubts about his decision. He was now "in the chair," guiding his clients through their various crises and hopefully steering them toward some kind of personal growth. To him, it felt like a tremendous responsibility; one he wasn't sure he was totally up to. As I listened, I thought about all the thoughtful research he'd done before starting on this journey. I remembered how excited he'd been at the beginning and how much commitment I'd seen him put forth. I finally asked him what seemed to be the only real question on the table: Did he believe in the process of therapy? Did he have faith that the big answers reveal themselves as we do the work and not before? Turns out, he does. I think he's going to be a terrific therapist. I always did.
I guess faith is an inherent belief that you're on the right path - even though that path can sometimes lead you to the edge of a rather big cliff that requires jumping. Usually it all boils down to a good honest assessment of what you're actually good at - and then following the trail of bread crumbs until you eventually find the loaf. I've always liked to make people laugh. For me, laughter always feels like "possibility"; the chance to acknowledge that there are a few things we're all scared of (or hope for) but just haven't collectively admitted to yet. When I laugh, I know who I am. Not who I wish I was. But who I actually am.
I remember seeing Bette Midler interviewed once. Ms. Midler (surely one of the most unique success stories in all of show business) was saying that for her, being creative was a bizarre combination of brazenly believing that you were the greatest thing since sliced bread while at the same time, realizing that you're probably not; that you could always be better. Faith is the pendulum that swings between these two opposites. If achieved, it will keep you going and if nurtured, it will keep you honest too.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor ("Boston Legal") and screenwriter ("Kingdom Come") who writes a weekly blog about being strangely middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv