Love, Greatness, and a lot of other bullshit 3.26.2011
What stresses me out more than anything, I think, what keeps me up the most at night, what panics and worries me when I ought to be calm, is that I am happy with my life. I have satisfied all of my needs and most of my wants. The parts of me that I want to change are in the process of changing. I've managed to surround myself with all of my favorite people and none of the people I'm even moderately less-than-interested in. It's great being me. Really it is.
Sometime between being nineteen and twenty it hit me just how enormous and mysterious and fascinating the world is, how lovely and diverse its people are. I think moving to Philadelphia had something to do with it. I could live my life in this city and not see everything that's happening within a walkable mile of my apartment. Being at the University of the Arts introduced me to students and professors who came from different worlds than I did, who knew things I didn't know, and who were just as interested in me as I was in them. I stopped worrying about "running out" of life.
Then I stopped worrying about drowning in it. When I was sixteen, or even eighteen, the discovery of a new band, or a new director, or a new school of thought, was like a soothing cup of water on a dry day. Then I found the Internet (particularly MetaFilter) and the glass of water turned into an ocean, and I worried that I'd never drink it all. Then I closed my mouth and started looking for waves to ride. Finally I realized that I didn't have to catch every single wave, or even stay on the beach the days I didn't feel like surfing; with this realization I was able to stop living my life as an extended water-metaphor entirely. It felt good.
But most people aren't as lucky as I've been. I grew up not really having to work for anything; I had two loving, incredible parents, who talked to me and listened to me and taught me things. One of the lessons they drilled into me was a young age was that I have a responsibility to help people who're less fortunate. It would be shitty to take advantage of my privilege, bask in happiness, and ignore the people who haven't got it. My mother's told me two or three times this last year that she thinks I'm a selfish person, I'm not doing enough to give back to the community, the world. I can't argue with her. I know what I could be doing. I'm not doing it. I have a pretty laid-back life, and I'm enjoying it while it lasts. I feel guilty about that.
(I could blame the Jewish Mother stereotype for this. Only my mother doesn't want me to find a nice girl and settle down; she trusts me to do that on my own, I think. She reserves her guilt trips for why I'm not saving the world. Fuck progress.)
Here are the things I think I'm good at. I'm good at teaching; I have a knack for figuring out what I want to say, and saying it in a way that it makes sense. Which means I'm also good at selling things. I'm charismatic, I have a way with words, and I'm either overconfident or I'm really good at projecting overconfidence. I'm convincing. And I can juggle a lot of thoughts in my head at once without dropping too many.
And I'm willing to be vulnerable. I almost crave vulnerability. I want to show as much of myself as I can without somebody else using what I show to hurt me. So I'm willing to do a lot of things that I don't think other people are willing to.
I try hard to love everything. I don't like disliking things. I don't consider it a virtue to be able to sneer at things. I want to love everything. I killed my hatred of religion pretty hard, hard enough that I've come up with a nice secular argument for believing in God. I want to understand everything enough to love it. I've still got a few niggling challenges (a few biggies: bigotry, political conservatism, Twilight, Bright Eyes, Inception) but I'm working hard to contextualize them enough that I can love them without sacrificing my own integrity.
I don't think that love is unconditional. Love doesn't make you spineless. You can love something and still want to change it. And I feel (though I may be wrong) that it's easier to change things that you love than it is to change things you hate. Hatred severs communication. It brings us apart. That separation might make us happier, but it doesn't get us anywhere. So as long as I'm determined to change things, I feel that love is essential.
(In marketing-speak: If somebody likes being some way, you don't change them by making them feel bad. Instead you try and convince them that being this other way will make them feel even better. I hated James Howard Kunstler's critique of suburbia for years because his message was: "Suburbs are shit and they spawn shitty people." As a suburban kid I fucking hated that snideness. But his real message wasn't that suburbs are devoid of good things. It was that well-designed cities are even better. Kunstler just sucks at selling himself.)
One person can change a lot.
We live in a culture that celebrates the individual in a really twisted way. We obsess over celebrity, fame, talent. We teach history as a series of Great Men who changed things, mentioning the cultures and philosophies which spawned them off-handedly, as if they were just a by-product of those Great Men's greatnesses. But we teach that this greatness is innate. We don't teach that anybody is capable of being great.
We teach students a series of mathematical techniques but we don't teach why those techniques are necessary. We don't teach the people who devised those techniques. We don't teach alternatives to those techniques. We don't teach the people who created those techniques in the first place. So the average student learns in twelve years of math class a lot of techniques which they'll use a calculator to solve past graduation; they don't learn what they can do to advance math, which is both the important part and the fun part.
We teach literary techniques; we present novels and poems as intimidating compilations of technique. We teach art as something inhuman, something not inherently a part of us. We kill kids' abilities to appreciate and love and enjoy these things. I was nearly seventeen before I read a poem that spoke to me. Do you know how fucked up that is?
It's not fucked up just because it makes unhappiness a lot easier (which it does). It's fucked up because it teaches kids to hate the parts of themselves that are creative. We create generations of students who sneer at the word "creative" like it means "impotent" or "failed". We teach that creativity is a frippery-jippery thing that has nothing to do with culture, or society, or life.
I don't think that our society has a problem with stupidity. I don't blame stupid people for making my world worse. I blame people who don't trust themselves, because they have been taught that the only intelligent opinions are the ones you see on TV or in the paper. Because they aren't used to building thoughts of their own. And that's how you get thoughts. You build them. Like Legos you snap little pieces together and make something bigger. Then you test for integrity. Then you get even bigger. Then you test again. And you don't get smarter, you just get used to working with larger and larger default pieces, which lets you build higher and higher, until you've created something huge, incredible, astounding. Something great.
So let's talk about greatness.
To be "great" is simply to be "really, really, big". When Ollivander tells Harry Potter that Voldemort "did great things — terrible, yes, but great", he is not telling Harry that genocide is a good thing. He's simply saying that it is a "really, really big" thing, and telling Harry that he is capable of really, really big things too. Like killing basilisks and making out with his best friend's sister. Harry's got that potential in him. So does Hermione, Ron, even Neville Longbottom or Draco Malfoy. That's one of the morals of Harry Potter — that what you choose to do defines you vastly more than who you are born as.
And greatness is easy. I mean, it takes a long time, and a certain combination of humility (to learn from your mistakes) and confidence (to think that you are capable of greatness), but if you've got all three of those things, and we all do, then all that it takes to be great is the willingness to keep making your thoughts and your creations bigger and bigger. There's no specific cut-off point for greatness. Some people insist that the only great novel is Proust's because it's three thousand pages long. Some people think Twilight qualifies as great. Some people think a great night out is getting drunk with friends, while my nights only turn "great" once they include a Twilight bonfire. You are allowed to form your own opinions on what greatness is; people who tell you otherwise will be part of my next bonfire.
Greatness is a multifaceted concept. Something (or somebody) can be great in some ways and ungreat in others. This is because things (and people) are complex and difficult to reduce down to a single word. People who think otherwise are part of the problem.
There's technical greatness, for instance, which is how well something's done, versus conceptual greatness, which is how good the idea behind something is, and there's sometimes also moral greatness. I can be a bad person and still paint brilliantly. I can write a beautiful song that makes you cry without being all that good at words or music. I can be a good person and still write shitty, shitty poetry, and show them to my friend Rory, who then has to decide whether he wants to critique my poem morally ("That's such a good poem, and you are a beautiful person") or technically ("You should be banned from rhyming words together forever").
This doesn't just apply to "fine" art. We can debate a politician on how good he is at being a politician, or on how clever his ideas are, or on whether or not he's a piece of shit. We can debate which of these is most important for a politician to be, if he isn't all three things. (And once we start understanding discussions on these terms, it becomes easier to express disagreements without yelling at each other. I can't decide if we don't know how to do this because we don't know how, or if we just like yelling. Both probably.)
Greatness isn't something we have to strive for in all aspects of our lives. We simply don't have the time or the ability. I don't plan on being a great cook; one day, maybe I'll read more about cooking and decide I know enough to attempt greatness, but I'm nowhere near that now. My mother's a damn fine businessperson who decided, at some point, that she'd rather be a great mother than be at the singular top of the business world. But I think that there's no reason not to attempt greatness in our fields of passion. All it takes is a willingness to constantly grow. There's no real cost to trying and failing. No reason not to try other than that we haven't thought about trying, or maybe that we've convinced ourselves we would fail.
By the way, I don't believe there's a conspiracy to stop us all from being great, or to keep us down low and unhappy. I think the problems in our society come from how big and old it is, how hard it is to understand its every aspect, how unrewarding the process of trying to understand sometimes feels.
Talking about "conspiracies" and "oppressors" without the ENORMOUS disclaimer that you can oppress something without intending to, or deliberately choosing to, or even knowing that you are, doesn't help anything. It's not enough to be right. You have to make other people want to be right too.
I'm not stressed because I'm unhappy. I'm stressed because I feel responsible, and guilty, and ungreat, and even when I don't know how I want to be great I feel bad for not trying.
I want to help people be more creative, and happier. I think that the harder we push creativity the faster the world explodes in the right direction. But I don't know the best way to push that just yet. And when I focus on myself instead of the world, I feel guilty. That's my conflict.
Some creative people have a problem with letting themselves be unchallenging and satisfying. I don't. I love being able to make things that people enjoy, and I want to give them as much of that as I can give them. But if I focus too much on being satisfying, I'll never push for greatness. So when I make something that's too much satisfying and too little great, I start wanting to shut down and break down and reform into something new.
The thing about greatness, though, is that it can't be everything. I try sometimes to read only great books and no simple ones. It's stressful and unenjoyable. Greatness has to be something we strive for, but it's not necessarily where we live. You don't climb Everest to build a town on top.
"Essay" in its verb form means "to try". That's the first thing I tell students who are struggling with writing essays. The point isn't to know. It's to make an attempt at knowing. The fact that you feel clueless when you start to write is a good thing. The best way to write a good essay quickly is to become secure enough with your ignorance that you're willing to expose it long enough to build it into something new.
Really, everything is an essay. Nothing's ever complete. When we set a creation down, it's only done because we want to work on something new. And that's freeing, in a sense, because it lets you try and fail and fail and fail and keep trying, without feeling bad about yourself for the failures. (This gets harder because, again, we live in a society that is convinced failing makes you a bad person. Man, fuck society.)
So I keep trying. I keep reaching for greatness. Both out of this feeling of responsibility, and because it's fun to try and be great, it really is. But when I fail — and I don't think that I have ever yet succeeded — I need to learn to bask in my life's happy simplicity, appreciate the good things that I have, instead of rejecting that happiness out of guilt for not yet being great.