“Really? He said that?”
That’s usually people’s reaction when I tell them that even as a singer, songwriter, and voice-finder, I have a story of someone telling me to be quiet. In my case it was my seventh-grade choir teacher who used to tell me “shut up” so he could “hear the other sopranos.”
Why are my voice students surprised by this? My students find me because my voice suggests to them that I have something to offer about how they might better use their own voices. For some, the fact that I, too, have experienced being told not to sing seems not in keeping with their image of me as a confident singer and loving encourager of their song.
More and more of us as artists, coaches, yoga teachers, makers, and creatives of all stripes are working in the world by cultivating a “personality brand” – growing (God willing, growing!) businesses based on passionately bringing our truest selves to the world.
All of this got me thinking about the “symbolic exemplar” and the pros and cons of being one.
The term “symbolic exemplar” comes from the writing of Jack Bloom, a rabbi and psychologist who wrote about how rabbis get authority as teachers and leaders, not only from our actual years of training, but from everything that we represent to the people we serve (e.g., every other clergy person they’ve ever met, Torah, the whole of Jewish tradition, even God Godself). We learned of Bloom’s work in rabbinical school because it’s important for new rabbis to be aware that when we walk into a room we bring with us not only a set of skills, strengths, and weaknesses, but also everything that everyone in that room projects onto us.
Similarly, a yoga teacher may come to symbolize “health” to her students (who would be shocked to find her eating a cheeseburger), or how a successful indiepreneur, in teaching others to thrive in business, is partly relying on how he himself symbolizes “success” and even “wealth.”
There are obvious cons to being in this position: If something happens to my voice, will my students stop trusting me to teach them to sing strongly and healthily? And as a rabbi, if you catch me having a bad day in the grocery store and I’m not able to be 100% present to you, have I impacted your view of Judaism, Jewish tradition, and God Godself?
We can easily feel trapped by what we come to symbolize.
But Bloom is very helpful here in his advice to rabbis, and I think all creatives have something to learn from his work: being a symbolic exemplar may have its claustrophobic moments, but resisting it or pretending the phenomenon doesn’t exist will only take us down a bad road.
Instead, like any other form of power or privilege, it is our responsibility to use it for the good. As a voice-finder, this means embracing my own diva self and continually trying to use the supreme confidence that others project onto me (whether I’m feeling it in the moment or not) to help them find greater confidence in themselves. And as a rabbi, to the extent to which others will always see me as a stand-in for the Divine, I want the image of the Divine that I strive for to be one of compassion and love.
I completely agree with our Buddhist friends: The finger pointing at the moon is not the same thing as the moon itself.