Why the idea of the tortured artist really needs to go, insight from being told I couldn’t get better and still make cool shit.
Oh, Hello Again!
I suppose I should warn you, this is going to be a toughie.
I think one of the most harmful ideas I was ever given actually came from my high school psychologist. At the time I admired him greatly, and I will never discount the fact that he gave me he tools I needed to help a lot of friends, and was my connection within that school to official mental health services. I knew a lot of people who needed help, and thanks to him I knew that I couldn’t adequately provide that assistance myself. And yet, he had some ideas and perceptions of the world that I cannot help but find profoundly harmful looking back. Of these, the one that I still struggle with most today is the idea that creativity is born of pain and suffering and that to get better was also potentially to lose my writing, my art, my passion.
It’s 2019. The American Government is still in partial shutdown, Trump is still President, Nancy Pelosi is, once again, the Speaker of the House. I’m back in school, one semester away from graduating with my undergrad degree. As I write this I am listening to Robert Reich’s Inequality For All, on Netflix. Wonderful film, by the way.
Oh. And it’s snowing. Winter wonderland. The roads are shit.
Like most years I have been struck, this last month, with a sense of wonder and estrangement from the fact that we have completed another year. A year is both an incredibly long period of time, and a strangely short one. In 2018 the expected lifespan of the U.S. adult was approximately 80 years. So a year is roughly 1/80th of my (and possibly your) expected life, barring unexpected luck and health or unexpected misfortune and ill-health. So, really think about this and sit with it for a moment: Between the turning of the year from 2018 to 2019, you have used 1/80th of your life. The numbers are arbitrary, but our experience of the concept of time is very very real.
First of all, congratulations. You made it. Don’t care if it was a good year, a bad year, the best year, you made it. And that’s something to be proud of. Glory in the little things.
At the same time, a year is deceptive. This last year, in the United States at least, has been a tumultuous one. I imagine that it has been similar elsewhere in the world. The U.K. is grappling with Brexit negotiations and seems closer than ever to staring down the face of a no-deal exit. President Trump has arranged a second meeting with North Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un, meanwhile his lawyers, family, and self constantly contradict themselves on policy issues, the Mueller Investigation, and even basic issues of honesty and empathy. China and the U.S. are both dealing with the results of the Trump tariffs, which have drastically changed the landscape in the seemingly unconnected landscapes of steel and soy in both countries. Japan and South Korea are both relying on a famously inconsistent President to provide the diplomatic and military might to keep North Korea in check.
But the passage of a year is complicated in other ways, unrelated to the newsworthy events of the year. Recently I have been seeing more and more memes concerning reaching adulthood as a person who, for reasons of mental illness, never really planned for it because you never really thought you’d get there. I can empathize with that idea. As someone with PTSD, which I have had since I was a child, a year, much less the larger concept of adulthood and life-planning, is huge. It doesn’t feel real to have made it so far. That’s a huge part of my disconnect from the new year.
I also get the sense that as a collective, not just individuals to struggle with mental health, we’re a little surprised to have made it this far. Between economic crises and climate change and the general instability of the political sphere, well, I won’t go so far as to say that we’re surprised to have made it another day, but it might be accurate to say that we’re for the shoe to drop. I know a lot of people who keep large amounts of food in the house, not because they need it, but because they worry about the snow storm, the missed paycheck, the unexpected bill, that means they can’t get groceries. My mom keeps more than a month’s worth of food in my childhood home. Some of that is a love of variety which is deeply ingrained into my family, some of it is to satisfy an anxiety about being able to provide enough food to live on. We’re middle class. It shouldn’t be this way, but that, my friends, is a discussion for another day.
On the drive to campus today I was listening to The Martian by Andy Weir and narrated by R.C. Bray. At one point while I was listening the main character described his labelling system for the last food rations he had and how he had designated when he would get to enjoy them. One was labelled, “I survived something that should have killed me”, the thinking being that some shit was going to happen. He doesn’t know what, or when. But presuming he survives it whenever it does, he gets to eat that ration as a reward for surviving some crazy shit. That’s us. I was listening to this with my partner and one of my roommates, and out of a highly humorous and wry book, that was the only section that got all three of us to laugh at the same time. Why? Because we could empathize with Watney, the main character, on a deep level in that moment. All three of us, going through life, are somewhat waiting for the next pile of unexpected bullshit. We don’t know if we’re going to make it, but for damn sure we’re going to celebrate if we do.
So that’s what I’m hoping to connect with this new year. It’s not a resolution-partly because I know myself and commitment is an… issue, partly because I celebrate new year on Halloween (we’ll talk about that later), and partly because damn it but resolutions feel lame as hell. But I want to concentrate less of the scary BS parts of being a human being, and more on the victories of having survived. The BS will always be there, and boy is there a lot of it in the world right now, but every little victory overcoming it is worth some kind of celebration.