The Exploitation of Mining for Inspiration

During a long ride this weekend I came across a new Public Radio International program, To the Best of Our Knowledge. They were doing an entire show about sadness and depression. The final segment was dedicated to a San Antonio artist, Michale Nye, who created photographic and audio portraits of sixty homeless individuals troubled by mental illness.

After profiling many of his subjects, the interviewer asked “If you could wipe out mental illness tomorrow would you? … Is there a function for this sort of sadness and pain? Do we need these people in our culture?”

He replied,

I see them as teachers, not as people with mental illness. They are helping us, there is a function. They are helping us understand more about ourselves and humanity. We need them for understanding, for insight, for courage. I found myself being inspired over and over. We need to listen to people challenged in their lives. I remember Virginia Woolf in her diaries said that we need to look at the landscapes of our lives and see that pain and sorrow reveal some truths.

Since Woolf published the descriptions of her suffering and they became part of the literary canon, it seems completely ethical to draw those sorts of lessons from the difficulties she had with being human. I am not so sure that it is fair to speak from a place of mental health and say that people’s whose lives have been ripped apart by unstoppable inner turmoil are necessary to teach the rest of us courage and offer inspiration. Isn’t this the height of solipsism, of deepest egocentrism that maintains that the rest of the world exists purely for our own edification?  Is the artist seeing his subjects as inspirational opportunities rather than real people caught in tragic circumstances?  Is their suffering being justified since it can be made into a chance for us to contemplate the nature of pain and sorrow?

I listened to this story through the filter of a conversation I had with my sister last week. I was trying to comfort her as her childhood friend lay dying of melanoma, but I was failing miserably since there are no words when a twenty-six year old’s life is being stolen away by cancer. Trying to help, I offered the possibility that she had touched countless lives in a special way with her early passing by teaching us life can be woefully brief and that we must revel in each moment we are granted on this beautiful earth. My sister reacted bitterly to this statement by declaring that there was no way that her friend was dying to show a bunch of stupid people that life was precious. She was finding solace in the belief that her friend was blessed to have spread all the love she needed to in a quarter of a decade, that she was a perfect enough soul that she didn’t need as much time on the planet as the rest of us.

Clearly, my sister was looking at the situation with a much finer wisdom than I could summon. Now, I am beginning to recognize the degrees of selfishness that are involved in everything from coping with death to creating art to thanking our lucky stars that we have clear, obedient minds. The stories of others can certainly color our perspective and enrich our own experiences, but we must never reduce another’s truth to a simplistic cautionary tale.

How can we learn to understand the deepest realities of the lives of the women and men who share this journey with us? How do we begin to recognize the fullness of others’ experiences so that we never keep those who suffer from illness or poverty as distanced figures, there only to teach a little something about the treacherous road of life?

My sister’s friend passed away on Thursday. I want to remind everyone to worship the sun at dawn and dusk, but respect its fiery, deadly glory at noontime. But I also ask that you think on a sweet Cape Cod girl who left this world too soon and realize the hole left in the fabric of an entire tapestry of lives.

Solstice: Returning from the Darkness

This week I have been pulled into an unsettling spiral that set me to thinking about darkness and death even in this season of joy and franticness. Despite the piles of Christmas cards and the antics of a kitten discovering his first box of wrapping paper supplies, I felt oddly bereft and adrift. I was not sure what scared me more – the emotions themselves or the fact that they should set upon me during this time of year when it is all about extending oneself by dragging through stores and baking that extra batch of cookies and generally “being in the spirit.” There is nothing worse than being called a Grinch or a Humbug in the weeks before Christmas, but sometimes it seems we slap those labels on one another because we are so terrified of acknowledging that we are having trouble hearing those distant sleigh bells ourselves.

One reason I started this writing project in the first place was because I became aware of the way so many things I thought I already knew had a way of sneaking up on me to appear as a totally new burst of wisdom. So here’s another epiphany that I have “known” for years but clearly never found a meaningful resting place in my soul. Today we have reached the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year when the earth stands still for a moment before tilting back on itself to reveal to us in the northern hemisphere longer, sun-kissed days. The weeks approaching the Solstice are full of darkness both in the celestial and spiritual sense. We feel called to slumber and reserve our resources in this bleakest time. I celebrated Midwinter for years, but I do not think I really understood that stillness of the earth that stands so close to death until now, and I certainly never felt its pull like this before.

If we are as connected to nature as I believe, it is inevitable that we should be affected by the slow winding down of the world around us. Of course, the reason I can speak of death so blithely is that it is just one turn in the cycle away from the rebirth that means an earlier dawn and an inevitable spring. We honor the birth of Christ at this very moment exactly because of this return of the sun. This sense of celebration sets us in a great paradox, however, as we fight our animal natures that tell us that winter is the time for hibernation and the contemplation of mortality. Human nature seems set to defy the wider rhythm of nature in so many instances, and this is no exception as we distract ourselves from the shadows with a festival of light. Wait, that sounds too critical, because I love that we are such ingenuous creatures who recognize the need to kindle a fire rather than curse the night. I just think it necessary to recognize that something more primal than western style consumerism or religious holidays may be at work on our souls right now. Some of the Scrooge impulse is certainly born of burn-out and weariness, but some of it may be that the secret parts of our spirits that have always listened to the sun and the moon and watched the trails of the stars are now yearning for quietude.  We all feel the loss of loved one who have passed on more keenly in December.  Part of that sorrow is the bittersweet memory of how they my have looked by the glow of a Christmas tree, but this remembrance of how death has touched our lives may also spring from the Earth itself as it whispers to us in these moments of deepest darkness.