Sunday, December 7, 2014

On Hope, Transcendence and the Meaning of Success.

I'll start by saying that I didn't really know where to put this.  While my size is relevant to it, it's not about that per se, nor about geekery or feminism.  I initially thought about just writing it for myself, keeping it private on an old Livejournal account or something, but ultimately I think there's something here I want to share, so here I go.

I've been in a very dark place lately.  I'm 38 years old, and by society's standards I haven't accomplished much of worth.  I have a degree, but the college I have it from isn't prestigious enough.  I'm an artist, but not one who has managed to sell her work.  I do my best to speak out on important issues, to be an advocate for women (especially survivors of intimate partner violence and rape), people of size, and those dealing with mental illness (groups I belong to), and a good ally to members of other oppressed groups, but my words only reach so far on the Web, and my physical limitations make in person action difficult.  I have a wonderful partner who is loving and kind and good hearted, and I do my best to make sure he knows those things, and how much I appreciate them, and to be a good partner myself in turn.  However, while having a wonderful partner makes the microcosm of my life infinitely better, it is not enough to counteract my sense of failure.

So, that's where I've been.  I've been wondering what I bring to the world, and if there's any point to it.  I've been worried about whether anyone will ever see my art, and frankly grappling with the idea that my work might be meaningless, that it will never be respected or admired or understood.  I've been twisted up in knots about whether my advocacy was meaningless because it wasn't "enough", because I wasn't reaching thousands or changing the world.  I was worried that all my passion, intelligence and creativity were ultimately worthless because what they produced wasn't being seen by "enough" people or making a "big enough" difference.

Yesterday, I found out that a favorite song of mine, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, had been rewritten into a twee, poorly done Christmas carol.  I found that upsetting for a number of reasons (he's Jewish, he's a poet whose words are remarkably beautiful, the song is not at all about that), and posted about it on Facebook.  One result of that post was a friend asking me how I'd interpret the last verse of Cohen's original:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about those lines for a long time.  I've been a fan for a couple of decades, and long since come to my interpretive conclusions and moved on to listening to the marvelous pictures he paints.  However, in this case I needed the reminder.

The first two lines, talk about the struggle to make love or meaning out of desire.  "I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch".  I couldn't experience the whole, so I reached for the parts.  That's a common experience, and not just when it comes to sex.  We often try to build the appearance of joy because we don't know how to find the reality of it.  We think that if we have the right car, and the right job, and the right partner, the ones the world tells us we should want, that those generic pieces will somehow become our very personal happiness.

It's easy to forget that life is more complicated than that.      

That's an important idea, and one to hang on to, but it was the last three lines that really punched me in the gut.  Those lines reminded me that flawed, imperfect lives - lives like mine - are still beautiful. They say that there is joy to be found in looking at the horror and chaos and unyielding complexity of the world, all the things you have no control over, and loving it anyway.  In loving yourself, "even though it all went wrong", in seeing the beauty in your struggle, and ultimately in accepting that there are genuinely things that you can't control, and that it's okay.  It's okay to not always be in control.

 Most of all, those lines talk about transcendence.  That transcendence can be found in religion, or meditation, or in a moment of absolute beauty, in sex, or pain, or honesty.  Some people find it in Beethoven and others in martial arts.  It can certainly be found in a cry to the heavens when there is nothing else that can be done.  It can be religious, but it doesn't have to be.    

Anyway, as I wrote a response to my friend explaining my personal interpretation, and it occurred to me that I hadn't had much of that in my life for a long time.  My focus on doing and achieving, and on my failure to do and achieve, hasn't left room for transcendence.

I moved on to other things, and went about my day, but last night while I was trying (and failing) to sleep, I came back to it.  I thought about the fact that my focus on success was very much an outward focus, a focus on meeting the arbitrary standards society has set on what has meaning and worth.  On a personal level, I've always, to a greater or lesser degree, rejected the idea that I have to be like everyone else to be valuable.  That's partially because I've never had any talent for pretending to be someone I'm not, but also partially because I strongly believe that thinking for yourself, making your own choices, doing things you genuinely enjoy, and developing a unique sense of self is a valuable and important thing.

But as I lay there, I realized I was completely failing to apply that philosophy to society's broader expectations.  I would never judge myself by someone else's arbitrary standards, but I was in agony because I wasn't meeting the equally arbitrary standards of society as a whole.  I was trying to meet a set of standards that had little to do with me or my life, and feeling worthless because I was "failing".

The other thing I thought about was art, and what it fundamentally means to be an artist.  I remembered that not all art is about the finished product sitting on the wall, or on a pedestal, or playing on a screen.  A whole movement of art is defined by the process of making it; the meaning is in the act of creation itself, not the result.

Those two things circled around in my mind, along with the idea of transcendence, and I realized that I'd been looking at things the wrong way.  My life is not a piece of art whose value is in the completed product or the number of eyes that look at it; it's process art.  My life is valuable because I am living it, and doing all I can to live it beautifully with honesty and integrity, creativity and love, and sometimes chocolate.

My art has worth not because of who sees what I create, but because I create incredible things that I am passionate about.  My advocacy has value because of the people it touches; the fact that there are people who touch more is irrelevant to the good I am trying with all my heart to do.  My degree has meaning because of the profound education I received while acquiring it, and because of the intellectual curiosity and value of learning it represents.  My life's value is not determined by society's criteria for success; it is determined by the joy and effort and pain and blood and hope and misery I have put into living it.

And that is transcendence, for me.  Looking at the world and saying "I can't control your standards, but I can look beyond them".  I understand that, in the eyes of the world, it changes nothing.  I understand that there will be many days when I will fail to see it, when I will again judge myself harshly against society's unreachable standards, which tell us to win or go home.  But right now I can see it.  Right now I can see that, as Cohen said:

There's a blaze of light in every word/
It doesn't matter which you heard/
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
I am broken, but come what may, I am full of light, and my life, my process art, is beautiful.