Cosmic Flowers of Hope – An AI Art Series

AI Art, Thoughts and Essays

Imagine the art world as a sea, and text-to-art technologies as the storm thrashing that sea. Cutting-edge art generators can transform a text prompt into a work of art. One major player, DALLE 2, takes only about twenty seconds for a generation.

Reactions to these technologies range from the delighted expectation of an art revolution to fear of apocalyptic disruption. When I first heard about text-to-art generators, my immediate response was consuming fear. As someone who based a large part of my identity on my artistic talents, I felt like DALLE and the like had stolen a part of me. I wanted nothing to do with art generators – until my God showed me they are nothing to fear.

Now I am excited to have a way to experiment with digital art that does not require expensive software and an abundance of skill and time. To be clear, these generators are not insta-art. They cannot read your mind and then spit out an exact match to what you envision. The process requires several generations and edits to the text prompt and the resulting images (in my experience). Still, when it comes to the artistic process, this technology is liberating.

Recently, I was granted an invitation to participate in DALLE 2’s expanded beta stage. Below is the fruit of my experimentation so far. In this art series, life and beauty blossom in the limitless expanse of the universe (symbolic of my own journey with art-generating technology).

Enjoy!

Nature & the Nature of Hope

Photography, Thoughts and Essays

Can you imagine a desert as a place of life? The work of photographer Guy Tal captures the surprising vibrancy of Utah’s badlands. His landscapes are visions of desert wonders. He has lived and worked in the Utah wilderness for over two decades, and his identity is interlaced with the environment he loves. In his artist statement, he uses religious terms such as “temple” and “sanctuary” to describe his relationship with the land. Perhaps he has formed a subconscious spirituality based on the environment that has shaped him. And this worldview seems to have led to a place of dark expectation.

Tal expresses his lack of hope for the wilderness’ future in a recent blog post. His essay is a beautiful, but sobering read. In it, Tal laments the changes reshaping Utah’s desert. Once reliable creeks are drying up; plant life is struggling, and animals are perishing. Society is divorced from nature, and humanity is too selfish to care. What gives meaning to him is dying. Thus, Tal embraces fate. He tries to accept the degradation of the land he knows so well. He concludes all he can do is live fully today while taking solace in the fact that he tried. He expects that future generations will only know a shadow of the wilderness that has inspired his art and given his life meaning.

I am a landscape photographer, and Tal’s essay has me pondering my relationship to the land I love. Western Montana is also changing. Population growth is exploding, and not all new arrivals care about conserving Montana’s environment. More foot traffic means quicker erosion of Montana’s trail systems. A greater number of people litter or carelessly harm wild places (e.g., using trees for target practice).

Yet, to me, nature has always been a mirror of Someone greater. I believe there will be a time when God renews and restores creation.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.

Romans 8:18-22

Even if the mountains crumble and the lakes dry up, I can walk in hope.

Does this mean I don’t care about conserving the wilderness I call home here and now? Not at all. Rather, my hope strengthens my love for God’s natural world and spurs me to action.

Do you have hope? If so, what is the source of your hope? I would love to hear your story if you care to share.

Painting of a purple iris created by Tressa Mancini in collaboration with AI.

AI Art: Iris of Promise

AI Art, Thoughts and Essays

AI art generators are sending ripples through the art world. Some fear this technology, while others embrace it. I was terrified of it. I wrote a long post decrying it during a moment when I was caught up in fear and depression. I deleted that article. Instead, I want to tell a story of personal victory.

On Friday (06/03/22), God said to me during a time of prayer, “Do not fear! Your skills in writing and design are not in vain! Do not fear computer tools but embrace them.” I then promptly forget about this.

Saturday, June 4th, rolls around. I find myself on Night Cafe, an AI art generating service. With the Lord’s help, I worked up the courage to experiment with the technology I feared. The featured image in this post – the purple iris – is the result of my experimentation. I was pleasantly surprised!

Today (06/05/22) I opened my prayer journal to see the above quote. I had done what He said, and God walked through my fears with me! I was telling one of my pastors about this, and she asked me what color the iris was. When I said it was purple, she said that purple irises symbolically mean the promise of God. She had a bouquet of irises at her wedding for this reason (more on the symbolism of irises in Christianity here).

This led to a moment of awe for me – I was reverently astonished at how God worked in my life. I took a risk and stepped into my fear, and God helped me through it. In the end, He showed me a new form of beauty and gave me a memorial [the art piece] of His faithfulness and His promises.

Speaking of awe, this was the subject of my lead pastor’s sermon Sunday night. Fear narrows one’s focus to the object of one’s fear, which leads to a downward spiral of negative emotions (as exemplified by my fear of art generating AI). But, according to Phycological Science, awe combined with spirituality has the opposite effect. “By making us less focused on the self and more in tune with the present moment, awe may ultimately boost our own individual well-being…The link between awe and spirituality may, at least in part, be explained by an ‘upward spiral’ of positive emotion that ultimately boosts well-being.” Not only did I get to experience yet again God’s care and Him working out all things in my life, but He also showed me a new weapon to combat my fears with: awe of Him.

“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” -Psalm 100:5

May the Lord bless you, and deliver you from all your fears!

Hope and an Eternal Perspective

Anxiety & Depression

When it comes to mental health issues and recovery, hope is key. And hope only helps if hope comes from a reliable source that does not fail even when the storms of life hit. The source of one’s hope determines the durability of one’s hope. Hence one of the benefits of faith is an eternal perspective, from which sustaining hope can be drawn.

I have written before about how depression is one of my ongoing battles. Something that makes this struggle worse is when I research about and obsess on the dismal state of the world. Of course, focusing on this reinforces a sense of hopelessness. To make progress, I go back to the baseline of eternal hope that my faith (Christianity) offers. The idea of the renewal of all things, and a restoration of creation to a perfect state, in which there is justice and the ability to live a beautiful, eternal life – this is hope.

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” – 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Depression Storms

Anxiety & Depression

Originally posted on My Depression Hope 8/31/21. I am doing much better and no longer feel this way to this degree. I am dismantling the Depression Hope blog and reposting its content here (as I explain here) in the hopes that this will help others with similar struggles.

I struggle with depression, and sometimes I ruminate on ending my life. Some days, the idea of freedom from the emotional stress and storm that is depression is so very appealing. Sometimes I am afraid of the harm I may do to myself. It is frightening to move beyond the safeguard that basic survival instincts should provide, yet often that is exactly what I do. The future becomes a blank, and I, in my dark moments, cannot see the true cost of giving up my future. All I can see is the potential to be free from the pain. All it would take is for me to have a bit more courage to complete the task.

In moments like these, my faith seems to hibernate. God is good, and He is my Lord. I know that. Yet I shut out this reality. I compartmentalize my faith. Instead of turning to God for healing and strength, I retreat deeper into myself, deeper into the dark ocean that is depression. I get lost on those stormy seas. I can’t find my way back.

Yet I have one comfort, even in my “midnight of the soul” moments: Psalm 121:7 NLT.

“The Lord keeps you from all harm and watches over your life.”

How precious the truth of this verse. My Lord watches over my life and keeps me from all harm, even the harm that I am sometimes tempted to inflict upon myself. I am not alone in this war of depression – the Lord is watching over my life. He protects me, even from myself. He doesn’t cringe and turn away from me with my mental health struggles. He protects me and helps me. I know He will continue to keep me from harm, especially when my own strength runs out.

Healing: Isolating From the World’s Concerns

Anxiety & Depression

Isolating from the people we love and the passions and values that drive us during a depression episode is a not the best choice. Yet isolating from the world and its concerns can be healing.

For Christmas weekend I chose to isolate from the world. I focused exclusively on God, my family, and the pursuits that matter to me. Usually my anxiety compels me to stay aware of current affairs, so not satisfying the urge to look was quite difficult. Yet I didn’t give in. It was a battle to force myself to focus on what was the most valuable use of my time.

Not looking at the news – not devoting all my mental energy to what ails the world and my country – helped me in an unexpected way. I was struggling with an oncoming depressive episode – the gas was poured so to speak. All I had to do was light the fire by giving into my anxiety. However, for the first time in a long time, that did not happen.

Yes, it is important to stay aware of what is going on. However, there is a balance to be sought. I daresay what we value most and what drives us on should take up ninety-nine percent of our time. It gives less fuel to anxiety and depression, and it is far less time wasted on things we cannot change.

“Fix Your Eyes on Jesus,” Said the Well-meaning Christian

Thoughts and Essays

I have struggled with depression for years, and one piece of advice I often receive from well-meaning Christians is to “fix your eyes on Jesus.” Okay, thought I, how does that help me? Fixing my eyes on Jesus does not make the depression – the emotional agony – go away. In my mind, fixing my eyes on Jesus equated to looking at a stained-glass window at church. Yes, the window is a work of art, and maybe Jesus looks beautiful in it. But how does that help me on a practical level? It never made sense. It was so frustrating! 

Yet God showed me the missing half the story – the part where it helps me. Fixing my eyes on Jesus (instead of my depression and pain) is not a one-way act. It is a two-way exchange. For once I fix my thoughts and my heart on Jesus, He empowers me to deal with my depression. He strengthens me in my moment of need to get through the dark valley. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” -Ephesians 3:16

“16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” -Ephesians 3:16-19

Through God-given faith, I am strengthened to face my present hardship: mental illness. He roots me in His love, and He becomes my Source of Strength to keep going – to heal. Then, together with the love and support of like-minded believers, I am enveloped in more of His love. The depth and reality of His love overwhelm the dark lies of depression. The cycle repeats, leading to greater healing and spiritual maturity. 

Fixing my gaze on Jesus is not just an empty platitude. To set my heart and thoughts on Jesus is to prime myself to receive His strengthening and to remind myself of His love that consumes all darkness. Amen.

A Dog With a Horrific Past Still LOVES People

Anxiety & Depression

Today, while I was at the post office, I met the most adorable terrier-type dog. She had white paws, curly, chocolate fur, and large, liquid eyes. She came right over, wagging her little tail. I couldn’t resist her!

While I was giving her a good head scratch, her owner told me her story. This dog has a rough past – she originally came from the animal shelter. She was seriously injured when she first came there – someone had shot her. I can’t fathom it – just, why? Yet here she is, two years in her forever home, and she adores people. From what I saw at the post office, and from what her owner said, she has a friendly heart. She assumes the best about everyone she meets.

When people hurt me, my tendency is to shut down and isolate. I can easily slide back into my old ways of distrusting all and assuming the worst about the world and its people. This then triggers my depression. Yet here is this little dog, who has been through more than I have, and she puts herself out there. She healed from her trauma, and she learned to love again. Her story is remarkable!

I know it is hard to exist in this broken world, and not get swept away by depression and negativity. Yet our stories are not yet concluded. You do not know yet how your story will end. There is always hope, and time and space to heal, and to learn to love again. A happy ending is within reach.

Remember God in Your Depression

Anxiety & Depression

As my battle with depression continues, sometimes I feel bitterness setting in. I am tired of the struggle – tired of fighting to be, at a minimum, a functioning human being. I question the state of my mental health a lot. Why is this happening? Why does it sometimes seem to be getting worse, not better? Where is God in all of this? Does He care?

Today I listened to a meditation that reminded me that it’s okay to not be okay, but it is not okay to ignore God. Lately, this is something I have been guilty of. I get frustrated because I do not know the reasons for why I am going through depression. I turn away from the One I sometimes blame for my complicated mental health. Yet, in doing so, I push away from the one source of reliable strength I have.

God makes it clear that the way through this dark valley is by His strength, and not my own:

“We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead.” – 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

And in the Psalmist’s grief and desperation, he reached out to God rather than turning away:

“Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.
18 Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.”

Psalm 25:16-18

So, I too will reach out, and learn to depend on my True Strength. I do not know all the reasons why, and I will not pretend to have unwavering faith, but I will stretch out my hand for God, and trust that He will guide me through as His Word says.

Depression Triggers: Insecurity

Anxiety & Depression

Insecurity: A Subtlety Dangerous Trigger

I am learning that insecurity triggers my depression. I often get distracted by what is outside of my sphere – by what has nothing to do with my life or what is important to me. I see what others have, or what they have accomplished, and the joy I have in my achievements diminishes. Insecurity rises, and I start to question the quality and worth of what I have accomplished. I question if my projects and passions are worth anything, and ultimately, if I do not make a conscious effort to stop myself, I spiral into questioning my self-worth.

Insecurity is not the most dramatic trigger I have, but the danger lies in how subtle of a trigger insecurity is, and how little it takes to activate it. My worst triggers – like certain kinds of headlines – I can easily spot and avoid. Insecurity is another matter entirely – it has a variety of causes, and it is not a trigger I can sidestep easily.

The Road to Getting Better

Insecurity is something I cannot avoid – I must face it and work through it for the overall improvement of my mental health. Some tactics I am using:

Conscious Distracting

I make a conscious effort to stop and take a moment to breathe. If needed, I switch to a different activity that will require my serious focus.

Detach and Refocus.

I remind myself of what is most important to me – being a daughter of God and helping/loving people – and how whatever has caused my feelings of insecurity actually has no bearing on my life and priorities. I do not have to let a moment of insecurity derail me. My meaning comes from what I value, and what I do to express those values. I am moving forward with what is important to me, and that is what matters most long-term and in this moment.

Leaning into the Word of God

I am a person of faith, and the Bible has been a major source of hope and comfort for me. I can focus on what I have yet not achieved, on the ways in which I believe I fall short, etc. or I can focus on God’s eternal words of reassurance.

Conclusion

It has taken me a long time to recognize insecurity as a trigger for my depression. However, being aware of the problem is the first giant step in solving the problem. I feel empowered to continue on my recovery journey, and using simple tactics like stopping and refocusing, I can overcome this.

Daily Devotions, Daily Healing

Anxiety & Depression
John 10:4 "After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice."

When coping with depression, the journey to healing is a daily trek. For believers, this means drawing close to God, daily, and leaning into His strength. Devotions, when pursued with a lover's fervency, become times of power and reassurance in the Father's presence. 

This time together leads to a sharpening of one's spiritual ears to God's Word, which produces greater confidence in and closeness to the One who rules the universe. The world is in a dark time, and the sources of hope in this life are, at best, fragile. I keep coming back to relying on God to ground me. When I hit rock-bottom, the Rock is my Foundation.

Yet, with depression, it is hard to summon the desire to engage in Bible reading or prayer. Sometimes devotions become merely a religious exercise, and the mundanity of routine dulls the impact. When I choose not to engage with God - when I choose to stay on the sidelines of my relationship with Him and use my depression as an excuse not to try - I work against my own mental wellbeing. It’s like taking antidepressants, but much more vital – devotions with God are just something I need to do each day.

But what do these daily devotions look like? For me, it is a conversation with God. For example, I was recently reading Psalm 139: 9-10: “If I ride on the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the furthest oceans, even there Your hand will guide me, and Your strength will support me.” Through these verses I believe God said to me, “My Strength is supporting you, and I will never leave you! I am guiding you through this to healing, even if you don’t feel it.”

That is the kind of supportive relationship that gives me hope for today, and the strength to continue on my journey of healing. I cannot stress enough the importance of daily devotions with God for believers. 

Hope in the Small Things

Anxiety & Depression
"I look up to the mountains—
    does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth"

Psalm 121:1-2

On the weekends I go for long drives into the backcountry. It’s a time of peace and refreshing for my soul. I love to capture the beauty I find there. Is also is one of the few pursuits that still gives me a spark of joy in the season of depression I am in.

I started going down gravel roads in the mountains and in farming country. These are destinations off the beaten path that enable me to get more exclusive shots. I can also take time to be by myself and just breathe.

When walking through dark valleys that seem to have no end, these glimpses of light become all the more valuable. Small pleasures remind me of the existence of that light. These little reminders are why I’m still here despite the pain weighing on me. Even though I don’t see it or feel it, a brighter tomorrow is possible.