The Other War of Art

Creative work is what is left on the battlefield after the fight between the rational mind…and the other thing.

Call it the soul, the unconscious mind, the muse; call it whatever you want because whatever you call it, you are referring to the same thing: that within your mind which you can’t by force of will access or control. 

If you’ve ever put a too-small fitted sheet on a too-large mattress you have some idea what it’s like trying to get “the other thing” to do what you want. She doesn’t listen. She hardly cares about deadlines. She doesn’t like your rational mind too much, though she needs him in order to exist as anything but a brief series of synapses.

It’s a cat and mouse game, and you only win if your rational mind forgets to chase, so that your muse no longer has to run and hide. When that happens, it’s easy to create.

That’s the thing about really hard things: when you do them really well, they stop being hard.

Creativity is indeed warfare, but the muse will only allow your rational mind a victory if there is no violence involved. Both sides must raise the white flag, come out from the trenches, and settle all the disputes peaceably.

War becomes a conversation, the conversation leads to agreement, and that agreement is expressed as an internally consistent artistic expression. Get tactical. Get clever. But if you start resenting one side, and favoring the other, peaceable terms will never be met, and you will never raise a monument in commemoration of the conflict.

 

 

 

Framing the World

We view the world through frames because to perceive everything at once would make life impossible. Some things must be left out, and it is what we choose to ignore that largely determines who we are and how our lives will change in the future.

We don’t construct these frames consciously. They materialize over time, in reaction to pains, triumphs, and hangups of the past.

We ignore what we think will bring us pain, and build the frame around that which we think will bring us pleasure. Unfortunately, our estimations of what will bring us pain or pleasure are usually inaccurate. Many of us have a perverse attraction to that which hurts us because we do not believe ourselves worthy of joy or pleasure.

Good things come to bad people largely because bad people are eminently skilled at believing themselves worthy of good things.

On the other hand, many good people who are good precisely because they are so aware of their own shortcomings, do not believe themselves worthy of the good. They start to perceive the good as that which is farthest from their current condition. They reject the good and push it away until eventually, they lose the ability to see it at all. In such a state, every moment becomes painful because there is no possibility of a better future.

Human beings need a better future to aim towards, to fantasize about. In order to have such a vision, one must have a reasonably accurate understanding of what is good and what is bad. Further, one must feel worthy of the good.

Being “present to the moment” is of no use to someone who does not know up from down. All the money in the world is useless to someone who cannot envision a future enhanced by that money.

Examine the frame and be careful to shape it so that all the light in the world is not filtered out.

Enough is Enough

“Enough is enough,” says the alcoholic, teetering on the brink of death and tired of it.

“Enough is enough,” says the abused partner, refusing to let themselves be wounded once more.

“Enough is enough,” says the depressed person,  sick of the sound of his own thoughts.

Is there a more powerful phrase in the English language?

Only “No more” comes close.

When someone says “Enough is enough” and means it, they mark a new era in their life.

The words are generally preceded by events so terrible that we are thankful that they happened, only because they forced us to do what we long put off.

I uttered those words today, and I meant them.

How did I come to that point?

A man walking through the desert with a heavy pack will eventually be faced with a choice: either drop the pack or collapse.

I dropped the pack just before I fell to the ground, and though I’m still on my feet, the Desert remains. I am searching for water.

Probably I will look down and see this Desert is a sheet of ice, and all the water I could need is just inches below my feet. I will see that the years of difficulty were merely the result of an illusion, one that I myself created and so am responsible for destroying.

I look forward to that day of realization. A sure sign of a happy man is one who can laugh at the mistakes of his past.

 

Today I said, “Enough is enough.”

Tomorrow I will say, “Time to begin again.”

The Pit and the Ladder

Everyone has a deep, dark pit that is particular to them.

No one’s pit looks the same, and no one arrives at their pit in the exact same way as someone else.

Some get there by getting lost in the dark and wandering too far from the light they worked so hard to kindle.

Others charge in full speed ahead because they forget what their pit looks like, even if they’ve crawled out in the past and sworn never to return.

Still more people throw down a rope and descend with a smile because they so enjoy the feeling of needing to be saved, of hoping to be saved.

Being in a pit is a good excuse for not doing other things.

Being in a pit keeps us safe from the dangers of the normal world, just as it keeps us isolated from the thrill of challenge and pleasure of triumph.

We forget what those things are when we’re in the pit. We wonder if they were just a delusion. We think to ourselves:

“Is there even a world up there?”

There is a world, even if your pit is so deep that the world’s light doesn’t reach. The proof is the ladder. Just as everyone has a pit, everyone has a ladder.

If there wasn’t a world up there, why would there be a way up?

Finding the ladder means fumbling around in the dark.

As you fumble, you may encounter things you wish you hadn’t. Ugly things, terrifying to touch. You threw them in the pit for a reason, but by doing so you only made it a more terrible place to fall down into.

But no matter how terrible they are, they cannot keep you from the ladder.

The ladder is always there.

 

38 Minutes in Hawaii

What do you do when you wake up to a text informing you of an incoming ballistic missile?

First of all, you surprise yourself.

It wasn’t so much panic or fear that gripped me, but a melancholic sort of clarity. The morning sky seemed all the bluer, and every joke that passed from the mouths of me and my friends seemed all the funnier.

My breakfast tasted far better than it ever had before.

It just so happened that I was with my closest friends, in a beautiful place, and so my mind didn’t provide much in the way of a plan of action. Rather, I seemed rooted to where I stood. Very little was in question; a missile might well be on its way, and well, there wasn’t much we could do about that.

“Keep Calm and Carry On” entered into my internal dialogue and stuck around there as a mantra.

One simple fact stood out as self-evident; if something terrible was going to happen, I preferred to suffer my fate as myself, my best self, surrounded by people I cared about and without having been taken over by terror or despair.

It may say something about the culture of Hawaii itself, and the character of the people who live here, that chaos was not nearly as widespread as you would think.

We like to imagine that many social norms would collapse in the moments leading up to annihilation, but that wasn’t what I witnessed at all. Suicide, drugs, sex were as far from my mind as they ever have been. The fear did not catalyze a desperate bout of hedonism, but something more akin to a flow state. Every sliver of experience received the attention and appreciation it deserves at all times, but that it is so often denied as we go about our daily lives.

For a brief span of time, that modern complacency was eradicated, and the real value of the various components of my life made itself known.

Though it was the result of gross incompetence, I will not remember this scare as a point of frustration or terror in my life. Rather it seems a point of extreme clarity when all that was unessential dropped from view and all that mattered came to matter more than it ever had previously.

The Price of Comfort

What price do we pay for comfort?

I think it is nothing less than the soul’s ability to strive. When cloistered and coddled, protected from the chaotic element, our internal worlds become chaos in order to compensate.

The human mind delights in problem-solving and implodes when challenges do not present themselves, and so we invent challenges, viewing the world through a lens that makes a comfortable sitting room appear to us as a lion’s den.

We walk through the streets more terrified than our ancestors on the open savannah, more scared in confrontation and minor difficulty than they when standing face to face with some monster out of the black.

We cannot look into the black without seeing monsters, whether that darkness is within or without. Every space the human eye glances upon becomes populated with angels and demons, snakes and centipedes.

But the lions and snakes do not cause a permanent state of internal disorder and misery. They are defeated, or we face death.

Invented challenges neither die nor entirely defeat us; they prowl and circle us and reduce us to cowering, tricking us always into thinking they are about to strike, and never striking.

The threat is the strike, their imagined presence is the only weapon they have, as evidenced by their vanishing on those rare moments when we confront a real threat, that demands of us utter attention and focus.

The Art of Nonconformity

You are never above a system you participate in.

Boycott what is disagreeable and engage fully with the rest.

The cog must escape the machine, or sacrifice himself for the sake of its destruction. To scoff and snarl at the machine is of no use. It is forgivable only to young men, at the time of their first realizations.

The sooner they understand what bravery is, the better. Bravery is striving to destroy what you despise, fostering and cultivating what you love, and never operating under principles that are not your own.

Beyond that, opinions are vanities. Sympathies unacted upon are vanities. Regrets are vanities outside their capacity to instruct us to better actions in the future. Cowardice is slicks words and a fine identity founded upon flexible principles.

Constitute yourself in accordance with observable instances of success in the natural world. Past failures are the signs of a mind out of sync with nature’s rules. Understand that punishments for mistakes often take years or generations to come, but they come.

The modern man has nothing so much to fear as his own tendency towards sloth and distraction.

If he wills himself capable of the commitment to toil half in measure with his peasant ancestors, he will find joy, for it will not be work in the field he does, but work in the mind, done not in order to take a single step on the treadmill of subsistence, but to improve the world at least somewhat in his own image, according to his own ideals of what is good and right and beautiful–

That is, if he does not sell his spine or let it erode unnoticed under the pressure of a social heard thousands of times more powerful than that of his ancestors. They exert force upon him through almost every aspect of his upbringing, if his parents be unexceptional. They educate him on books written in summary of their common consensus and confine him to some small corner of the globe where he may remain small and uninvolved with larger affairs.

Whether he is the greatest metropolis or the smallest cul de sac, this is the feeling, this is the message; you are not smart enough, you are not great enough. Stay where you are and don’t get caught climbing towards truth. Climb towards money if you wish, or status, or fame, even power so long as you fill a position that was already filled, and maintain the hulking culture as it steers towards the uncertain future.

They do not tell him the truth, the all too obvious truth; that he will be loved if he strives, loved so completely it cannot be imagined, perhaps by the world, but at the very least by himself. They do not tell him his only option is to climb up the very rungs they said were forbidden.

It is either fall into a poison well, into a life fabricated with the discarded pieces of norms no one ever liked or consciously agreed upon, or to climb as high as he can, as long as he can, with the thought in mind that even that strain will be better than the slow death of a life lived in defeat, in response to the powers that very deep down wanted him to climb, when all was said and done.