Should Exposure to and the Capacity to Create Art Lead to Living a Better Life?

This year has been a particularly conflicted one, with amazing high highs and saddening low lows. This is the time of year when people take stock of their years, take stock of their lives. They come up with a year-end report and make projections for what their life will be to come. I am in that kind of frame of mind, but I’ve found myself wrestling with certain ideas and questions and I guess rather than run over what I think I’ve been through in the year, I want to sort of think and ramble (unlike a lot of my past blogs, this one is turning out to be more focused and structured, and I guess it would be nice to have a kind of ramble-y, meandering piece that’s searching for meaning and understanding as it’s being written here) and just try and process some of those thoughts that are going on in my head. So please, if you take offense or feel strongly about certain things I say, go ahead and express yourselves, but understand that I am not trying to speak the truth or say anything definitive, but rather trying to think through things, and so contributions to the thinking are more than welcome, but coming out straight hating would just kind of kill the whole thing. And I’ve been through too much hating this year already.

That’s where we’ll start, with the hating. It’s what gets all this thinking going anyway, so might as well start there. 

In a year when I feel like I’ve gotten to accomplish some things, and I can be proud of these things (finishing my MA, releasing my first collection of short stories, contributing to the work of the UST Publishing House, leading the UP Press’s digital publishing program, oh and no small feat for me: starting to cook), this is also a year when I feel I’ve been subjected to a lot of negative energy, a lot of things being said about me, a lot of people trying to bring me down.

This hate isn’t our dictionary definition of hate per se, but our contemporary use of hating, like “Haters gonna hate,” not necessarily the intensity that the word denotes, but rather, in general terms, just other people trying to pull you down. That’s pretty darn vague, but I don’t really want to get into details here of who’s doing the hating or how, but rather come to question the whole point of it in the first place. Why do we bother with such negative thoughts, feelings, actions? What good does it do us to bring people down when what we should be trying to do is build each other up, improve ourselves, and then the people around us, and then hopefully our communities, our surroundings, country, world, universe, whatever man. I don’t know if it sounds like my mind’s coming from a Disney movie, but I want to have this kind of youthful, childlike optimism that people can see beyond their immediate surroundings, personal needs, and opportunities, and think of a larger thing that they are contributing to. I want to believe, after being so angry for so many years, that we can all come to things in a positive manner, looking to build, to contribute, to enhance, basically to raise each other up and make each other better.

By now, with thirty years under my rather stout belt (which for my health and future must really get smaller) I have to admit that where I am now, working in the humanities, particularly in the literary arts, is probably the field that I will be working in for the foreseeable future. I will admit to this longing to get an MBA, to try my hand in different fields, and to explore other things which I can apply my humanities background to, enriching that field or area of study or work. But even with those desires, it is clear to me that I will be devoting myself to the humanities and creative writing.

While this seemed the clear trajectory as a writing major, moving along that course and actually knowing that you’ve put in the work and have moved in that direction to such a point that the coordinates are pretty much set are two different things. But with the acceptance that this is most likely the field which I have a chance to contribute to lays things out, makes certain things clearer.

I will be devoting a substantial amount of my cognitive processing, my creative energies, and my life, to the humanities. I’ll be mixing up the time between being in the classroom and trying to teach kids who could care less for epiphanies and dramatic tension about how to read and hopefully appreciate literature, hopefully helping young writers develop their skills and talents in and out of the classroom, trying to contribute to local publishing in attempts to deepen the current readership’s interest and reach a larger, untapped readership, and in between all of this writing my own stuff, for 2012 the optimistic projection is finishing a book about urban planning for laymen and (fingers crossed) my first novel. I want to throw in that as I was staring at the page that would not move forward, I was suddenly hit by the idea for a second novel, which combined these ideas that had been stewing for a couple of years with some new ideas I’ve been playing with. I ran to the whiteboard and wrote the concept down, and ever since it has been staring at me, asking me when I will start on it.

So there, I’ve decided to generally devote my life to the humanities. The humanities, which is a field of study which struggles to figure out, really, what makes us human. And to enrich our sense of humanity, which in my belief means to enhance our capacity to connect with other people, to make other people’s lives better, whether it be through direct action, indirect action, or merely through the sharing of ideas that enrich the way that we interface with the world.

It is ironic then that as I have approached closer and closer to the point of no return in this field, I have been exposed to more negativity, more behavior that breaks me down, talk that paints me in a terribly unprofessional and generally crappy light (sadly coming from people who have similarly devoted themselves to the humanities, some even being remarkably creative). I have never had to deal with as much hating and pulling down than I have had this year, a year when I feel like I’ve made some pretty substantial contributions to things.

I know at this point that some readers may start seeing this entry as a pity party. And if you’re doing so, hey you’re free to think that and just move on. But then I think you might not be getting it. If this sounds like some guy angst-ing about people hating on him, then yeah, that is part of it most definitely.

But more than that, it leads me to the question that has been bothering me the last couple of weeks. When so few people outside of the arts communities care about insight, dramatic turns, and epiphanies, and people of artistic bents are constantly searching for these in various artistic media, why are we in the arts communities so negative towards each other? Why are we, who surround ourselves with great art, we who read the best books and listen to the best music and watch the most artistic films, why are we who are exposed to so much extraordinary beauty, beauty that it is a privilege to have access to, why are we sometimes capable of some of the worst things.

Okay, I know where that goes, and how anyone is capable of doing bad things. But what makes me wonder is that how we, who strive to enrich ourselves, who write critical analyses of artistic work, we who actually produce art, how can we be exposed to and create such beauty, and yet manage to turn around and do bad things to each other? Wouldn’t it be logical to think that people who are so immersed in art, in beauty and in human accomplishment, would turn out to be more appreciative, understanding, loving, giving?

The question, as stated in the title, is shouldn’t our appreciation for and capacity to create art translate to being able to lead a better life. I know that we could debate the definition of “better life” to death. Of course we could. But I’m sure that we all have a general idea that we can agree on. Treating people well, improving ourselves, helping people out, making contributions to our fields, doing good work. We also have an idea of the bad things that we do, our own flaws and limitations. And by exposing ourselves to art are we not building in ourselves a stronger sense of self-awareness, a stronger connection to people, which will help to stop us from treating other people badly.

I don’t know. I will admit that for all the books that I’ve read, for all the great music and great movies and everything that I’ve exposed myself to, I also have the capacity (if not tendency) to self-sabotage, or to just flat out F things up in the most F-ing spectacular manner. But I’m hoping that this thought, this line of thinking, will lead to a change. I am hoping that an awareness of this issue, a hard and long look at this dilemma, will lead to some sort of epiphany, some sort of realization that will lead to me living my life a little better this year.

It saddens me that people with such amazing intellectual and creative capacities can choose to devote their time and energy to talking crap about me, trying to break me down, trying to mess with my writing and my career and all kinds of other aspects of my life. More saddening is the fact that this goes so far beyond me, and that this kind of behavior is so rampant that some people view it as systemic and even worse, as just a given.

The last few days I’ve spent hours just thinking about this, thinking about the cognitive dissonance between beauty and the ugliness of hating, and how easily these things can co-exist in even the best minds. And I’ve been thinking, here’s a thought so terribly naive, so dumb and obvious that I don’t know how it never occurred to me before: it’s actually a lot easier to write a really good critical paper, or to write a literary work, than it is to make the good and right decisions in life. It’s so much easier to conjure up a fictional world and then impose justice on a story in that world than it is to commit oneself to justice in this world. It’s so much easier to find logic and order on, say a comic book page, reading the progression of panels and understanding the meaning of it all, than it is to find a logic and order in our often chaotic and problematic world.

So I guess that’s where we near the end. Sure there are the haters (and I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime soon I was back in the unemployment line looking for a new job, or if I were deprived of opportunities, or just generally hassled thanks to these haters). And there are always going to be the bummer things in life. The world is full of suffering and sadness, hardships and trials. But it’s also full of beauty, things that make us proud to be human, things that make us proud to be part of the human race, accomplishments and admirable feats, whether these are the discovery or development of new technologies, or an amazingly powerful poetic line.

I guess I’m deciding that I will be as positive as possible, and spread this kind of thinking as far as I can. It sounds corny and it sounds uncool, it’s so anti-existential, anti-nihilist, anti-hipster, and so unabashedly sunny and sounds like it’s coming from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street. But this is where all this thinking has gotten me.

I’m lucky, I’ve been fortunate to have opportunities that a lot of other people around me never got. If not for a few lucky answers on the UPCAT, I would have wound up an out of school youth, probably delivering filtered water, cooking up Isaw, washing cars at the corner carwash, or something else. My family wrote me off as hopeless, and just a shade over ten years later I’ve got an MA, some books, and I’m doing something I love. How can I not be positive? How can I not believe that things can be better? And how can I not share this hope and this positivity?

I think that we do have a responsibility to work harder, to try and make things better, try and make each other better. I know also that those kinds of statements might raise eyebrows, might sound like threats of hegemony, imposition of beliefs, or other possible concerns. But no, it’s really just this idea that by bringing a good, positive approach to things, by bringing positive energies, and by dismissing all that hate, we can do so much more. We just get past those things that are stopping us, and focus on building and improving, and we can accomplish so much.

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