It’s been an astoundingly busy time: I’ve inhaled a giant lungful of the air of possibility concerning cultural recovery, exhaling endless pro bono projects, days speeding by like spring petals on the wind. (Nagging thoughts of livelihood float like rain clouds overhead, but never mind for now.)
Busy on the inside too. Something persuaded me that it was time to take stock, so in the interstices of my tasks (it seems I get all my thinking done in airports lately), I wrote a kind of spiritual autobiography, scrutinizing my journey thus far in the hope of discovering what I have learned. So there it is again: every moment has been instructive, of course, the delights as well as the despair, but hands down, the most important lessons have emerged from difficulty.
I’m not thrilled to be sharing this conclusion. It’s not a prescription, just an observation. If I were granted the ability to order from a menu of the future, you can be sure I’d go heavy on the bliss, perhaps including just a soupçon of suffering for piquancy and contrast. But looking at the road I’ve actually traveled, there’s no mistaking that pain has led to possibility every time.
How? Mostly by forcing me to know my own heart and mind.
Especially when I was young and very certain of what I wanted, getting it seldom taught me anything but the fleeting nature of such satisfactions. (Or as Oscar Wilde put it, “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”) Take love, for instance. When I was young, I wished to be pursued, and I was. My experience was shaped by the desires of others. I complied, and I enjoyed, but I learned very little about my own desires until circumstance forced me to feel them. Deprivation was a far better teacher than surfeit.
I have been thinking about the way that these intimate truths, on the scale of a single human story, translate to the larger stage of a family, a circle, a community, a society. Along with countless others, I have all my life hoped and pleaded and written and spoken and agitated for a more just and humane social order. All to the good, no doubt. But when I look at President Obama’s poll numbers—the way he rises in public estimation by denouncing torture, for instance—I can’t help but think that of all things, eight years of the Bush-Cheney administration’s punishment of the Constitution was the most powerful teacher of why we should love and protect liberty.
The problem with learning through pain, though, is that sometimes the main thing we learn is to complain. Knowing what we don’t want doesn’t necessarily teach us to imagine and propose what we do desire.
I spoke on a panel recently that focused on questions of culture and public space. Naturally, I shared my thoughts about cultural recovery, all the things this nation might do to harness artists’ creative power in the service of national recovery, including putting artists to work in public service jobs. A couple of people (who personally have no need of public subsidy) spoke against public arts funding. One cited the banality of Post Office murals created during the WPA of the 1930s, another complained of aesthetic conservatism in his own city’s public art program.
The implicit basis for such arguments is what in logic is called the “nirvana fallacy” or “perfect solution fallacy,” in which some actually existing (and therefore flawed) possibility is compared with an imagined perfect ideal, and is rejected because it fails to live up.
Eliminate the nirvana fallacy (that is, admit that only imperfect solutions can ever be crafted with what Immanuel Kant characterized as the “crooked timber of humanity”), and it becomes evident that unhappiness leads to healing only if complaint leads to proposition.
Here on Planet Earth, it isn’t as if there is a perfect financing system for culture, for instance. The marketplace skews toward a form of value based on resale: will an art object gain in monetary value over time? Will a performance be resold a sufficient number of times (in concern, in a recording, in a move theater) to enrich its sponsors? Individual patronage skews toward the caprice of the patron, often entangling artists in power relationships reminiscent of sexual commerce. Corporate patronage skews toward public relations, adding to the annals of censorship—painted-over or altered murals, expurgated performances and exhibits, subsidy offered and withdrawn. Public patronage skews toward fear of controversy. No money comes without strings, and none of the strings are intrinsically more confining than the rest (although the remedies differ: in the private sector, there is little of the legal recourse we have against public-sector censorship). The main observable difference is that public support, when it has been available, has sometimes been less burdened by questions of privilege, slightly less dependent on whom one knows than what one does.
Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch—I’ve done it as much as anyone, so much I’ve finally had my fill. What shall we do instead?
My spiritual journey has led me toward my own desires, including what I want from relationship, whether love or work is the subject. In my current stage of life, where the challenge is to complete a journey toward my self (though I hope it takes a long, healthy time), I want only relationships with others who understand this truth. Have you ever been partnered on a project with someone who is most comfortable in the negative, criticizing others’ contributions? On the individual level, this is frustrating: being a good sport, responding to encouragement, you toss out an idea—and it lands like a lump of meat on the floor of the lion cage. But as a social stance, the damage that can be done by addiction to complaint is even greater, making us a nation of critics, in thrall to the nirvana fallacy, risking all that we might otherwise accomplish in exchange for yet another chance to exercise our kvetch.
I don’t want any longer to give my time and energy to that type of exercise. I want to be able to learn pain’s lessons before my head breaks from banging against the wall of my difficulties. I think it will take a great deal of restraint and awareness to implement this wish, to recognize and refuse ubiquitous opportunities for the type of relationship—whether in love, work or politics—that promises to teach a lesson I hope I have already learned, discovering oneself by encountering pain. Here in the little world as out in the big world, I hope you and I are up to it.