Art and suffering


Here’s a good amount of blathering on some thoughts I’ve been wanting to blather about for a while.  I just finished (by recommendation) Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which sort of reminded me I wanted to blather about these thoughts.  It’s a good book, though it’s really not as much about the craft of writing as the other books I mentioned in my last post are.  In many ways it’s more about life philosophies and how they relate to writing.  It’s extremely funny at times, and has some very poignant moments.  I’m not sure I agree with all of Lamott’s thoughts, but it might just have to do with my interpretation of her words.  She almost seems to encourage people to delve into their sufferings for material; to bathe in the unpleasantness they’ve experienced in their life for their writing.  While I do agree with a lot of the other things she says (and really enjoy how poetically and humorously she says them), the suffering issue somewhat inspired this post.

These thoughts are somewhat random… I’m not sure I’m trying to make any overall point, I’m just making observations and suggestions to myself for the most part.  Hopefully it won’t sound too corny.  But let’s face it: deep down in our hearts we’re all corny and sentimental.  (Get it?  Cuz that’s, like, sentimental right there?)  Anwyay, here I go:

Suffering can’t be compared

I think everyone suffers.  And I don’t think suffering can really be compared because we can only ever be one person.  When someone says or thinks something like “I have suffered more because I have been so ill all my life” or “I grew up with such and such a life and such and such happened to my family and nobody else can know what’s that like” or even “oh, I am clinically depressed and take medication for it, so it’s clear I suffer more than most!” … I think that’s one of the highest forms of arrogance.  It’s such a ridiculously huge assumption.  I think you can know someone for years and years and never know how they’ve suffered.  I guess the main thing I don’t like about such an assumption is: why does it matter?  Why do some people have to compare their suffering to others?  Are people who suffer more better?  Are they more deserving of good things?  Even if we could journey into other people’s minds and find out how much suffering there is, what would we want that to change?  People who suffer more get bigger paychecks and better houses?  People who don’t suffer as much should be punished so suffering is equal for everyone?

Anyway, the point is, I think suffering is non-comparitory.  We can’t journey into other people’s minds, and I think it’s stupid to assume one can assess another’s level of suffering by anything else.

Who cares if you suffer?

Since I think everyone suffers, and I don’t particularly like suffering myself, why should I care about someone else’s suffering?  That said, I think it’s natural for us to care about each other as people, and if someone we know well is obviously in a lot of pain we’ll want to ease it if we can.  But that’s not because we’re interested in that person’s suffering, it’s because we’re interested in that person.  We don’t like that person’s suffering.  We’re not interested in it, we want to get rid of it because it’s annoying and it can spread.  Would anyone want to be around a friend who’s just gloomy all the time?  I doubt it.  I think we naturally try to avoid such people, they don’t make us feel very good.

A suffering character

Though I don’t much care for the suffering of others, when I’m reading a fictional story, something really weird happens.  I’m not sure what the psychological reasons are behind it, but I want the main character to suffer.  If the main character goes around happy for the entire story and experiences no conflict at all, I feel that the story is rather empty.  If I don’t care for other people’s suffering, and if I don’t like suffering myself, how come when the story is fictional I all of the sudden desire it?

Maybe some other part of my mind does want to suffer after all, but it wants to suffer with the meaning a good story can provide.  It wants to suffer for something, for some cause.  I already know I’m going to suffer in real life anyway, so why not use stories to daydream that there’s a worthy cause for all this suffering?

The suffering artist and letting it out

I know there are plenty of artists who use art as a way to “release their emotions” … I guess it’s kind of a self-therapy.  I guess whether or not such an act is useful depends on how it’s done.  I think sometimes it can help the artist find answers to his problems.  I like to think that writing literature is, in a way, searching for answers within oneself.  That might sound corny, but I think it’s really true.  Where else are you going to find any moral answers you can believe in?  (That’s not an argument for moral relativism, by the way!)  But I think “letting it out” can also help an artist to continue to hurt himself if the artist becomes dependent on such feelings to produce art, if that makes any sense, or if it just encourages the artist to dwell on terrible feelings.

Personally, I think when I’ve been really miserable, I’ve used art more as a way to “keep stuff in” … to get my mind off it, to be able to focus on something else.  I don’t like remembering the bad times, I don’t want to use them as fuel for my art.  When I look back on my art, I don’t want to be reminded of the bad times that inspired it.  That said, I still think every memory, good or bad, will influence my work whether I like it or not.  And I can’t very well write about a character suffering if I don’t recall some of my own suffering.  But I guess I use art more to “search for answers” (like I said above) and to sort of escape the suffering and let my mind go to a different world for a while more than I use art for making any sort of record of my suffering.

Dreams can be stupid

I don’t know how it emerged, but at some point having a “dream” became a very romantic thing.  Children are raised being encouraged to “follow their dreams” and even adults are encouraged to continue to pursue them.  Woah!!  Doesn’t it matter at all what the dreams are?  I think it does.  I’ve talked to artists who long dreamed of becoming rich and famous, of having their work influence thousands or millions.  And then their dream doesn’t come true and they become bitter and think about giving up.  I guess the real problem is that it became more of an expectation than a dream.  It became something they expected to achieve, and something they were depending on to find happiness.  That’s just stupid!! I can understand the natural desire to want fame and fortune, but if you’re secretly expecting such things and depending on them for happiness, you’re an idiot.  Just stop wanting them!  Stop!  Now!

Maybe their are two kinds of suffering: physical suffering that comes from nerve endings and such, and emotional suffering that comes from wanting.  Obviously we’ll always have to want something, like at least a next meal and to sleep every now and then and to have some air to breathe.  If we didn’t want and work towards things we need for survival we’d just sit there and die.  Some stuff we naturally want but we don’t really need to survive, like our loved ones to be around forever.  They die and we cry at their funerals, but that sort of suffering still comes from us wanting them.  Or as I mentioned earlier we naturally want others to not suffer.  So if a loved one is going through a particularly very rough time, that might make us suffer too, because we want them to feel better.  It all comes from us wanting stuff.  And then there’s the really unimportant stuff like wanting money and fame and this award and to be seen as that kind of person.  I guess that sort of wanting is natural too, but it’s the dumbest and most useless sort of wanting.  The sooner we can get ourselves to stop wanting such things, the better.  So if one of those bitter artists is thinking about giving up on their art because they’re not famous yet, I have a real tough time thinking of anything encouraging to say.  You shouldn’t be wanting such stuff!  Or at least you shouldn’t be depending on such stuff.

Being loved

Perhaps the desire for fame comes from the desire to be loved.  (And perhaps this is the source of relationship problems too?)  I think all humans have a natural desire to be loved, but it’s the oddest of desires because we can never really know whether or not we have it.  How can you tell if someone loves you?  I guess the most natural way to tell is attention.  So that’s why people want fame, that’s why people want attention.  It can be a sign of love.  And if you love someone else, how else can you show that love besides giving that person attention?

But they’re still two separate things, love and attention.  Love is something you do in your brain; it’s a silent act and you don’t have to move any of your limbs.  I think in many ways it can also be unconscious, or subconscious.  It’s not often (at least, I’m guessing) you sit there totally thinking only about your love for someone else (though it might be a good exercise), but then when that person leaves forever or dies, tears can just come out of nowhere, and you suddenly realize how much that person meant to you, even though you didn’t consciously realize it.  (Perhaps love itself is a form of wanting?  A wanting for interaction with or dependence on that person?)  Attention, on the other hand, is something you do, something you give, with words or a listening ear or some gift or whatever.

Anyway, I think people can love you without giving you all the attention you crave.  And I think people can give you attention without loving you.  So, while love might be expressed by attention, I don’t think attention is necessarily always an honest sign of love.  Therefore: stop wanting attention!  I think that’s a huge challenge, but I still don’t think it’s a very good thing to want.  Not that it’s something you should reject, of course.  But if you have it, don’t trick yourself into thinking it always means you’re loved.  And if you just want to be loved, just realize there’s never going to be any way you can really tell whether or not someone really loves you.  It’s something you’re just going to have to believe in.  And if it’s all up to your faith, you shouldn’t need the attention anyway.

I guess I could also say: stop wanting to be loved!  But I think that’s a good thing to want, and I think it’s perhaps the only thing that it’s impossible to not want.  But it’s not something we can ever really know we have from others, not in this world at least, so the most we can do is give ourselves the faith that we are as loved as we want to be, even if we don’t feel we’re getting any attention at all.  We shouldn’t need the attention.

A bad place

I suppose another thing that can cause a lot of suffering, besides physical pain and wanting stuff, is being in a bad place.  Actually, I suppose that is a form of wanting something: you want to be out of that place.  But there’s a lot less you can mentally do about it.  Trying to stop yourself from wanting the things I already mentioned is hard enough.  What if you’re stuck somewhere?  I really don’t know.  I guess you just have to hold on to something until you’re able to get out.  Sometimes a place is the problem (or a person is the problem).  I can’t think of much else to do besides trying to get out of there as soon as possible and in the meantime just doing all you can to get you’re mind off it.

Whew, thank you for reading all that.  All that philosophy or whatever it was (blather, I guess) tired me out.