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When Life Sucks, Create
Can't cope with the world these days? Maybe it's time you stepped up and did nothing about it.
I was talking recently with my friend Jon about a decision he once had to make, whether to become an artist or an entrepreneur. He couldn’t focus in both directions. He could only choose one.
This surprised me. Not that he chose entrepreneurship, but that there was ever a question. Jon and I have been friends for over a decade now, and in that time he’s struck me as an entrepreneur through and through. The decision wasn’t far in his past, either. It was just a few years ago. What’s more, the way he posed the dilemma implied he’d been making art up until that point, then suddenly had to make a change.
And all I could think was: Artist? JON?
He’s a writer, but I’ve never known him to write fiction. It’s mostly copy. Creative copy, yes … but marketing-minded stuff just the same. He doesn’t paint, or sketch, or take photos, or make films. If art had been on Jon’s table this whole time, clearly we saw it differently.
And so I asked him: How do you define “art”?
He said, “Art is creating something that you want to exist, regardless of whether the world wants it or not.”
I realized that his business, up until that point, had been his art. The choice at his crisis point was between continuing to create things that Jon wanted to sell … or instead playing the wider market, delivering what the world needed and would be willing to buy.
The new definition switched a light on inside my brain. Jon’s definition clicked for me in a way that nothing before ever had.
I get it now. Art is a big middle finger.
This fucking world of ours
I guess I shouldn’t badmouth the world. It’s the only world we’ve got. I don’t even mean it, swearing about the world. I just get frustrated. It’s like when you shout at someone you love and then apologize, telling them that you lost control there for a moment because IT’S JUST A LOT RIGHT NOW and you needed to vent.
That’s the way I feel lately. I suspect it’s the way a lot of people feel lately.
But I don’t mean it. Hey, world: I’m not actually against you, nor mad at you … it’s just … IT’S A LOT RIGHT NOW, and I’m only human.
War. Poverty. Discrimination and hatred and arguments and blame. Reactions to the blame, then reactions to the reactions. Violence. Attempts at change, then resentment of the attempts. Inflation. Environmental collapse. Social media dissonance and resulting teens with dysphoria of all stripes, ending in depression and suicide. The widening of social and wealth gaps, racism, misogyny, a rainbow’s worth of queer-phobia, psychological dehumanization of people we’d rather not see as people, and cults of personality rallying behind troubling figures on all issues, all sides of all spectrums.
I mean, FUCK. I’m trying to raise kids here, you know.
And it’s not just the wider world. Some of it’s just me: at the midpoint of my life’s story, and any story scholar will tell you the midpoint’s hallmark is “everything changes.” And it is. Man, is it. Compared to what was true for me just six months ago, it’s easy to feel recently like it’s all falling apart.
But it’s okay. Honestly. I’m not mad at you, world. I’m not ready to give up on you; really I’m not. I’m sorry I called you stupid. We can work this out. In fact? Maybe we were overdue for a shakeup anyway, and of course all shakeups feel … well … shaken up.
This is what I do. This is how I cope. And you know what? It works.
I’m so stupidly optimistic and faith-filled and trusting that people say I’m naive. Bad things happen and I say, “It’ll work out,” or I say something that really annoys die-hards: “Everything happens for a reason; everything works out for the best.” I try not to say this around people who won’t take it well because they then go about convincing me I’m wrong. I’ll get a list of things that didn’t work out well at all. A list of reasons that things are actually really terrible, and I’m negligent for not being more concerned … as if “Johnny is concerned,” in and of itself, will change things that can’t be changed.
Hi, I’m Johnny. I’m not an alcoholic or traditionally religious, but I’ve always thought the Serenity Prayer was brilliant.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
So what I try to do, when it feels like the walls are falling in, is to remember those lines. Most of what we do — the stuff that feels the worst — is worry. Worry isn’t about the present. Worry is about the future. Worry is us thinking that we can predict the future, and predicting it’ll be bad, and then going ahead and feeling crushed by that imagined future in advance. Worry is pretty stupid that way. It’s like if you knew you were going to be punched in the stomach tomorrow, so you decide to start feeling the pain of that punch right now just to get a jump on things. It’s moronic, but that’s what we do when we worry.
There are a few things I can change. Not many, though. Everyone acts like the second line of the Serenity Prayer is the real deal, but it’s actually the first and third lines that are the number one stunners. It’s not events that make us crazy most of the time. What makes us crazy is the lack of serenity that keeps us resisting those events … and the lack of wisdom that causes us to think we can change the things we can’t.
Personally, I blame the internet. Used to be, you only heard about the bad shit happening within a few miles of where you lived. Now, you’re duly informed when some kid on the opposite side of the globe gets his lunch money stolen. I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about that kid getting his lunch money stolen, but I am saying it does nobody any good to tie ourselves in knots because he did. Global connectivity — plus that amygdala thing we do, where we focus on alarming events and ignore the good, for survival reasons — gives us the entire planet’s bad vibes at once, plus an implied sense of obligation. Empathy, meet guilt. How does this make anyone’s life better?
We all get to choose where the camera of our lives focuses. In any moment, a billion good things are happening for every tragic thing. And yet, where do we focus when the chips are down? Not on the good, usually.
My favorite singer-songwriter Bob Schneider has an unpublished song called “Goddess” that you can only get on his Patreon. These lines from it sum up my feelings on modern chaos quite nicely:
My phone keeps telling me all this information
Supposed to get me upset, fire my imagination
Of a world so dangerous and so damn wrong
But when I look outside my window, people just getting along.
Easy to say. Hard, sometimes, to believe. So what’s the solution?
Personally, I vote we act where we truly can … then give everything else the finger.
When you can’t fight, create
If a tiger is coming at you, you’d better do something about it.
If a tiger is coming at someone you love or even someone who’s simply close by, you should probably do what you can to help.
But when someone informs you that tigers are eating things far away, and you can’t see or reach the tigers, and honestly there’s not much you’d be able to do if you could reach those tigers, and you’ve already put tiger fence around your city and voted for the tiger-prevention candidate and warned your kids to stop walking around in tiger lands wearing meat suits … Well, in that case I personally suggest you let it go already.
Maybe you’ll feel guilty. After all, there are still tigers out there ruining the world.
Maybe you won’t be able to rest, because even though you know there’s nothing you can do, a nagging part of you still insists you should do something, even if it’s still really nothing.
When those things happen and you’re overwhelmed because IT’S JUST A LOT RIGHT NOW, I humbly suggest that the solution is to create something.
When the world has you down and there’s nothing you can do about it, I recommend creating art.
And don’t tell me you’re not creative. Of course you are. You’re human. Don’t tell me you can’t make art because you were taught to equate “art” with specific skills you don’t feel you have, or because you’re a bookkeeper or a long-haul trucker or another profession deemed (inaccurately and unfairly, in my opinion) to be “non-creative.”
By my friend Jon’s definition, art is anything that you want to exist, regardless of whether the world wants it to exist.
In situations like this, creating — i.e., making art — is a slam-dunk. We’re talking about times when the world has you by the figurative cojones, after all, so who cares what the world wants to exist. Aren’t you upset? Aren’t you mad? Isn’t that the entire premise of this post? I don’t know about you, but when I’m upset, I want to feel better. I want to push against the thing that’s giving me grief — to change something, even if it’s just how I feel.
And so: Honestly, fuck what the world wants right now! The world is pissing us off. Why should we care about its preferences? If there’s ever been a time for us to push back, it’s when we’re upset, angry, or feeling beaten down. By definition, the very best time to make art is when you’ve been backed into a corner with no other options.
Put another way, creating something that you want, selfishly, without consulting anyone or worrying what others will think or prefer, is the best thing to do when you think you can’t do anything.
Whenever you feel helpless or hopeless, that’s when you prove you still have agency. You’re never truly helpless. You can make art; that’s the one thing you can — and must — do.
There’s a reason that the most creative times in human history were times of strife.
There’s a reason that people say, “Suffering makes great art” — and a reason that when protest is needed, it often comes in the form of songs.
Don’t tell me you’re not a creator
Bullshit. Everyone’s a creator. Maybe you don’t consider yourself talented at the “typical” arts like drawing and performing, but you’re talented at something.
Remember the rules: Art is creating anything that you and perhaps only you want to exist. Even walking to work a different way than normal is art by that definition.
Why did you walk through the park instead of by the factory? Because I motherfucking WANTED TO, that’s why.
Maybe the air is fresher at the park. Maybe you enjoy the sights better that way. Maybe someone you like is usually in the park, feeding pigeons. The walking example is admittedly a little absurd, but that’s why I chose it. My point is that art is about the exertion of will. It’s the pure expression of something that most people don’t bother to show the world.
Art is about making a genuine, heartfelt choice. If more people “made their art” instead of doing what’s expected, I’d wager the world would be a better place … or at least a place filled with people who didn’t feel powerless, going with a flow they never chose or endorsed.
Creation is a middle finger. It’s saying, “I think this and I’m going to say it or show it or do it. Oh, you don’t like it? Well … what are you going to do about it?”
Creation is brave.
Creation is human.
Maybe the world sucks sometimes, and maybe sometimes there’s nothing we can do to change it.
But we’re not powerless. We’re never powerless.
What we are, at heart, are creators.
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