Look to the Artists

July 25, 2016

 

I've largely been silent here this summer, mostly because I've been too horrified by events unfolding in the news, seemingly from everywhere, on pretty much a daily basis. I've spent a good deal of my energy figuring out how to simultaneously prepare my oldest daughter (nearly 18) for the realities of the world she is about to enter, while also endeavoring to shield my youngest (5) from those same realities. It's emotionally exhausting, but honestly, probably the only thing that's kept me from going straight-up catatonic. Most days, the ugliness and hatred are everywhere I look, and the loss of hope it engenders is almost more than I can bear. I can't even fully process one awful thing before the next one hits.

 

This barrage of the worst that humanity has to offer is particularly tough to filter for my kids. When I talk to my youngest daughter, it's a balancing line between not scaring her out of her wits and making her understand that some of her friends will not, do not, experience life in the same way that she does. Some of them may be killed, for no reason at all. Some of them may repeat the horrible things they've overheard their parents saying. And it's at times like those when I remember what Mr. Rogers said.

 

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

 

I love this quote, because it gives children a place to anchor their natural-born hope in times of tragedy and disaster, which, frankly, seem to have become the current status quo. I think I love them most because these words have nothing to do with judgements of any kind. Instead, they only speak to the best of what humanity has to offer - helping one another in times of crisis. This is something good and true that I can offer my child, and I'm grateful for it.

 

But what about adults? When I look at the news, I often have a very hard time remembering the good in people. Unlike my kids, I know what the stakes are for the future. Sometimes that burden alone seems overwhelming, regardless of whatever awful thing is playing itself out in the media at any given moment. Where do we turn for comfort when it feels like the whole damned world is burning?

 

Understand, I come from a generation that grew up under the shadow of nuclear war. We were raised with the knowledge, and the belief, I might add, that the world as we knew it could come to an end at any moment. To some degree, this awareness inured us to all the shitty things going on in the world. We lived, for the most part, under the shadow of the executioner's axe, and we came to accept that. Even if some of us (and I include myself here) developed some degree of hope for mankind in the years after the Berlin Wall came down, that hope was quickly and truly quashed after 9/11. Now, all these years later, it's pretty clear that the world is most definitely not becoming a better place. So these days, mostly, I just endure, waiting for humanity's next horror to chew its way into existence. I'm aware, of course, that this probably isn't the healthiest of attitudes, but I work with what I'm given.

 

In the meantime, where does one look for hope, down here among the ruins?

 

I say, look to the artists.

 

Artists are the touchstones of a society. They observe, interpret, record and recollect everything there is worth knowing and remembering. They are the rebels--give me a totalitarian regime and I'll find you someone, somewhere, who fights back through art. They are the sin eaters of humanity, documenting the horrible and transforming it into something beautiful and worthwhile.

 

And I'm not speaking to galleries and Pulitzer prizes and world tours. I'm talking about the artists who are barely scraping by, the ones with something to say and not much to lose. They are the graffiti artists tagging railway cars and overpasses. They are the writers and illustrators turning out underground comix. They are the garage bands playing dives and singing rebellion.  No matter how bad things get, I can always find an artist somewhere taking that pain and making something with it, something that touches people and makes them remember.

 

So when things get bad, find a bit of art that gives you hope for the world. Read it, listen to it, look at it, feel it in your hands. Reconnect with that spark of goodness that exists, in whatever form it takes. Better yet, make some art yourself. Be a light in a world full of darkness.

 

Art is one of the earliest things mankind created that endures. Before we built houses and kings and money, we were painting on cave walls, and we were singing and telling stories. Art was there at the beginning, and still sustains us now.

 

Maybe it's what will remain when we're gone.

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