Her question was simple and innocent, but it sparked a sudden realization which seemed obvious moments later. But in that one moment of epiphany, I put a truth into words which my emotions had known all along.
“What would you say is the unifying theme of everything you think and create and do?” she asked.
Hannah called me a couple of weeks ago out of the blue. It’s easy to find my phone number if you know where to look. It’s even easier to find my email, so most strangers just send me email. But Hannah read some things I’d written and decided we needed to talk.
She had a lot of questions sparked by things I’ve written here. She said I suddenly made her question much of what she had been taught all her life by her conservative culture in suburban Salt Lake City. She wasn’t looking for rebellion. She was just looking for something true.
After a couple of days of intense conversation, she asked the question that struck me so strongly. It struck me strongly because it suddenly allowed me to see something obvious about myself.
Everything I do is a struggle to make sense of a world which is fundamentally nonsensical.
Contradictions are upsetting to me. They offend some basic part of my core person. They seem wrong. Yet I live in a place which is filled with contradictions, so I’m left wandering through a world which feels insane to me — wondering why there aren’t more people who are upset as I am about the same contradictions.
As soon as Hannah asked me her question, I knew the answer — and I finally saw some intellectual structure to my emotional longings and desperate meanderings to do things which others don’t understand.
I ponder the contradictions of human politics. I’ve worked in the belly of the political beast at a level low enough to see the contradictions and the depravity. People speak of serving others but what they really want is power and money. They want to force others to obey them. They see the flaws of their enemies clearly, but they are blind to the same flaws in themselves and their allies. They are blind — and they have no interest in seeing anything beyond what they already believe.
I ponder the contradictions of religious life, among believers with a background similar to my own and others who believe nothing like what I believe (or have ever believed). I see people desperate to cling to what they were taught, not because they believe it’s true, but because they are deathly afraid of questioning what their subculture dictates. They speak of love, but they are filled with hate for those unlike them — and they’re so filled with fear that they want to force others to be like them. They are mostly blind — and they have little interest in doing more than going through the motions of what they’ve been taught.
I ponder the contradictions of our culture. I see people doing things which they hate — day after day, month after month, year after year — until they’re bitter and angry at the world. But they’re afraid to question what they’ve been told they must do. Even if what they’re doing is not giving them what they were promised — and even if they can see the emptiness of spending their lives doing these things — they’re unable to ask themselves if they’ve been taught false values. They are blind — and they’re afraid of anyone who tells them there might be another way.
I am trying to figure out why people run from the truth. I’m heartbroken that people can run across a glimpse of truth — about themselves or the human life or the reality of this universe — and then turn away and pretend they never saw it. I see this over and over — and I can’t make sense of this willful, intentional blindness.
For a long time, I’ve considered that some form of insanity must be part of being human. That’s the only way I can explain what we are. It’s the only way I can explain what I see others do — even after they’ve seen what living a conventional life has done to others they’ve loved and cared about.
I can’t make sense of this all — and everything I do is a struggle to reconcile the truth as I see it with the reality which I see humans living. Everything I think and everything I write and everything I create is all an attempt to make sense of it all. It’s an attempt to isolate truth — whether others see it or accept it or not — and point to a reconciled version of bits and pieces of truth, at least I can I understand them.
I disagree with Noam Chomsky about much of what he believes — especially as it relates to political philosophy — but he was never more insightful than when he wrote, “Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”
There was a time when I was immersed in the conventional doctrines and beliefs which I was taught by my conservative middle-class American culture, but I eventually saw behind the curtain and realized there was no wizard — and that much of what I believed was nonsense. The more I pursued truth, the more other people started to feel that what I said might as well have been from aliens on Neptune.
I need this world to make sense. I need to find truth. I need to resolve the horrible contradictions of a culture which is killing the spirits of its own people from the inside.
And so I think. And I write. And I dream. And I try to extend my thinking and my art in ways that can leave an impact — and which can allow me to feel I’ve expressed truth to a culture which is afraid of facing truth.
This is why I write. This is why I take photographs. This is why I need to make art of all kinds.
Everything I write is an attempt to resolve a contradiction or to express a coherent idea which I need someone else to hear. Every photograph — whether it’s a sunset or a tree or a cat or a child — is an attempt to say, “See? The world can make sense every now and then.”
Every piece of art I make is aimed at resolving fundamental contradictions of human existence.
Something in me knew what I was doing. I emotionally “got it.” But the intellectual framework for it didn’t slip into place until Hannah asked her question.
This doesn’t fundamentally change anything for me. It doesn’t suddenly mean that more people will understand and follow what I’m learning. It doesn’t mean art will be easier to make or that the money to make it will come more easily.
But it gives me a stronger understanding of something. My drive to resolve contradictions and express truth as I can best understand it is a holy struggle — and it won’t let go of me.