Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Museum Musings: Some Sentimental Claptrap

It's been an emotionally overwhelming week. "Fraught" is a good word. There's been a lot of horrible, senseless death, and I have been weeping over that, and the things we don't and can't talk about, about the fear and the anger and the frenzy, and gun control, already, and mental health and equations of masculinity with violence, and all of the dark, brutal, important, necessary conversations we need to be having, and and and. And I'm not going to use this blog as a platform to talk about those things. That's not what it's for.

I am going to use this blog to talk about the experience of joy in the face of tragedy and horror. That is what it's for.

There's this thing that happens to me when shit gets really dark. I want very much to make a point of sharing reminders that the world is not inherently and absolutely a bitter pit of suffering precisely at the moments when it most feels like maybe that's exactly what it is. I start to write about kindness, and beauty, and love. And I always hesitate. My vision gets blurry. And the smog before my eyes coalesces into words whose letters manage to convey withering, belittling scorn in the very essence of their italics. They say something like fuck that namby-pamby nicey-nice touchy-feely New Age sentimental claptrap.

I get embarrassed. (I blush easily.) My ears go hot. I wonder what kind of searing, screaming privilege enables me to think that I have any right to talk about how life is very nice really when there are millions of people suffering in ways I can't even imagine. I feel like a clueless idiot who has no idea how the world really works.

And then I post that shit anyway, because fuck that noise. 

Or there's this tree. This is a very nice tree.
Actually, seeing this tree kind of smacked me in
face when I saw it because it was so absurdly
beautiful. The photo does not do it justice. 
Ceredigion, Wales. Photo by me.
I do not believe that horror and suffering should be overwritten with the suggestion that the universe is actually a kind and benevolent place and pain doesn't matter as long as there are pretty flowers. But I have had moments of wild, absolute grief where I've been walking down the street with my heart falling out and noticed a plum tree in bloom and had to face the fact that the fucking tree is stunningly, wildly beautiful anyway. It's not more true than my suffering, but it's not less. It's just also true. There's this boiling abyss of pain and there's also this tree. They coexist, equally senseless, and they don't cancel each other out; rather, they complexify each other.

("Complexify" is a verb I've been using recently. It technically means "to make complex," but I've been treating it as something like "complicate" but without the negative connotations and the inherent, hidden shrug that says "well, you know, now it's too messy to sort out, so I can pretty much just not really think about it." I would define it as meaning "to add layers of depth and complexity in an intricate, unmuddied way." When we say something is complicated, we generally mean -- at least, I generally mean -- that it's a bloody snarl, a tangle; the bits are difficult to sort out, it's hard to see a balance, etc, etc. It's complicated is a kind of dismissal. Conversely, it's complex tends to mean -- again, at least to me -- that there are lots of fiddly bits, sure, but they are worth exploring and they do, eventually, make some sort of vast sense. So I use complexify when I want to say that something brings in additional nuances, layers, levels, threads, narratives, but in a way that adds meaning rather than simply muddying the existing meanings.)

When really bad, awful things happen, I and many people I know tend to temporarily forget that reality could possibly have another texture. For some reason, being a "realist" seems to be correlated with seeing the worst and not the best in things; to be willing to acknowledge sweetness or beauty or wonder in the midst of pain is often seen as being Pollyanna-ish, in denial, or otherwise mildly delusional. We get embarrassed about wanting to feel joy or lightness, the desire for which gets treated rather as if we were trying to put a bandaid on a festering buboe. People who claim to see the world clearly somehow seem to miss the fact that loveliness is as inexplicable and mysterious a part of existence as pain. Of course there are those who will cling to niceness as a way to avoid facing or acknowledging darkness, but that's no more a delusion than convincing yourself that the universe is nothing but darkness and all niceness is wholly illusory.

The Chesterton quote is from this book,
a strange and beautiful story about bomb-
throwers and God at the turn of the last
century. It is one of my favorite books.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
As G.K. Chesterton said, far better than anyone else: bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained.

That's not complicated, but complex. Two conflicting perceptions of reality, side by side, don't cancel each other out; they make, instead, a more intricate, beautiful, bizarre truth, a staggering duality in which the world is simultaneously awful and astonishingly wonderful. Let me say it again: these things do not cancel each other out. It is easy, when horror yawns at your feet, to feel the vertigo of thinking that goodness and beauty are accidental, incidental, tiny islands in a sea of darkness. And it is equally easy, when things are joyous, to think that anguish is a mere shadow on the blue skies of the mind. It is our tendency to reduce the world to one or the other that I resist. In this case, I am resisting my own temptation to doubt myself and wonder if maybe I'm a namby-pamby nicey-nice touchy-feely sentimental idiot for wanting some warmth to shine on my very cold heart. Recalling that there is also goodness when things seem most bad is not unrealistic. It is, rather, sanity-preserving. Nothing unhinges the mind and leads to tragedy like the conviction that the world is wholly bleak and empty of meaning.

I believe that a Museum of Joy must have exhibits dedicated to anguish, because joy is something that happens as well as suffering, not instead of, and it can be a strange and awkward and painful thing to try and navigate the experience of seeking, or accidentally finding, joy in the midst of pain. Today, however, I just need to share some nice thoughts. In particular, Mr Rogers's thoughts.

"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."

There is an intense, often very emotional surge of gladness in me when I take this advice, silly and childish as it might sound (and why the hell do I feel the need to qualify it? surely anguish allows us all to need simple, basic comfort?), because it allows me to see something meaningful and good and beautiful without having to pretend that the suffering doesn't exist, or rationalize it, or explain it. I can't always accept the anguish; some part of my brain rises up in resistance. But it makes a place for me to keep it where I can also hold on to the existence of goodness, of love, of meaning, without setting them at each other like dogs in that endless, awful argument my head gets into about yes but what is the world really? Brutal or beautiful? Magical or miserable? Yes. Yes, it is.

Love is a thing. Sometimes, a very powerful thing.
By William H. Majoros  (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
I guess all I'm saying is this: because I am aware of my own propensity to feel anxious about my need to seek reminders of joy and meaning in times of deep suffering, it feels important to me to take the time to say, to all of you: don't be afraid of things that make you glad in times of trouble. Perhaps you are, like me, inexplicably soothed and comforted by looking at pictures of baby owls. Perhaps, like me, you feel guilty about wanting to do this after reading news of a massacre, as if you were somehow trivializing suffering by implying that a glance at some fluffy arrangement of pixels is all you need to feel better about it. Perhaps, like me, you can't help feeling like there's very little that's more indicative of your privilege than the thought that looking at pictures of baby owls could make you feel any better about the world's violence. And you know, that's true. Perhaps, like me, you should do it anyway. The things that feel silly and trivial and the things that feel noble and grand. Not to escape pain, or ignore it, or shoulder it aside. But to remind ourselves that the things that give us joy still exist, that this strange planet is still worth fighting for.


  1. I wish I had time for a long comment, right now, but I'm cooking dinner, and we have to leave in about 30m.
    I tend to only apply my "realism" to people. People tend to be selfish, despicable things unless something reminds them to be otherwise. There are exceptions, of course, but the tendency is toward the self. "Look for the helpers" is a good way of remembering that there is beauty in people, also, not just out in the world.

  2. Replies
    1. You're welcome. I thought of you while I was writing it. Specifically, I hoped you would like it.


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...