A Father’s Letter to his artistic and altruistic child

To paraphrase the founding fathers, I hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. Every human being experiences life in their own individual way. The only truly unifying feature of all human life on our planet is our eventual and certain death.

2. Not a single living person on this planet can say with any certainty what happens when our physical bodies die, therefore no human being has the right to tell another human being that whatever they may believe about life and death is incorrect or misinformed.

3. The right to individual determination — the ability to decide for oneself, in the absence of physical harm to others, how to live one’s life, is a right that accrues to all of us, even as the world at times conspires to deny it. It’s why I am so grateful that part of my reality is to have been born in a country where that right is actually part of our national code.

This certainty of eventual death creates the potential for a dichotomy of responses — one family of responses says ‘since we all die, there is no purpose to life’ and another says, ‘if we’re all to die, let’s figure out how to enjoy the time we have’. This is, I understand, a very secular view, and many religions would say there is a third way to deal with the certainty of death and still find purpose in life — to honor God and to be welcomed into heaven when you are called.

But these are my truths, and I have lived my life by them, deep in my soul, and they have impacted all of my actions and decisions. As I became a young adult, I began to vacillate back and forth between the poles of ‘life is absurd and has no meaning’ and ‘life is full of wonderful experiences and pleasures and should therefore be lived fully’. The former led me to party hard, take terrible risks with my life and others’, and live truly just day to day, fantasizing futures but planning none. The latter led me to great friendships and to look for, find, and appreciate love.

This is where truths give way to some mysteries.

What about love and other people? There is this odd capacity we have to bond together, to lean on each other, to enjoy each other, and love is the word we’ve chosen to attach to that capacity. Love, I found, can take some of the edge off the absurdity of a finite existence. In fact, a lot of the edge. I’ve told mom many times that she’s saved my life, which she always poo-poos — but I know in my heart it’s true. Until I fell in love with mom, I had no real regard for the future. She changed that.

What about evil and other people? I know what my reality is, but I’m horrified that the world is so full of other realities that to me seem unimaginably cruel. I could be homeless. I could be a sex slave. I could be living in a slum in Brazil or India, or any number of other places, picking through garbage for food. The world can seem relentlessly unjust at times. The presence of evil in the world affected me as a child. I daydreamed about becoming a great leader, a great statesman, maybe even President. And when I got there, I would spend my mandate making the world a better place for everyone.

Why do we have children? Part of it is the pull of nature — the biological imprint that says the species must survive, therefore the species must procreate. But since we are much more than just biological beings, and some of our sex does not lead to procreation, and we are self-determinant, what is the emotional reason to have children? For me it was the final and ultimate expression of my acceptance of the second response to life and death — the one that says there is so much to experience and find joy in while we’re here. It was a way for mom and I to honor the love we had for each other by creating new individuals with the capacity to add richness to our lives. I always knew though, that the time would come when my children could think for themselves and have their own set of ‘self-evident’ truths. And I know I need to respect those truths, or risk being a hypocrite in your eyes. But deep down, I also had hope that my children would also see the evil and injustice in the world impacting other lives, and rise beyond my accomplishments to make that world better. This takes procreation past the biological and into the realm of duty — if we believe we can bestow upon the world some day people who will be loving, charitable, and passionate about doing good for others, we will have made our small contribution to making the world a better place.

And what do we make of art? I enjoyed history in school. History was a virtually uninterrupted tale of war, plagues, empire-building, and empire-collapsing. Sort of like a Lord of the Rings movie. Reviewed alone, one would think the last 2,000 years have been one long, drawn-out death-march. But alongside the carnage, there was also art. Some humans felt compelled to create music, some to depict the world they saw on canvas, or carved in clay or stone. Some took an internal path and produced literature. To me, art is an attempt to make sense of this life that begins to ebb as soon as we are born. Sometimes it’s just intensely personal, just some primal need to release energy and thoughts and give some kind of expression to that which is inside us, but un-seeable and un-hearable and untouchable. Sometimes it’s an attempt to find an audience that will reflect back the idea that we are not as alone as we think we are — that dealing with the human condition is something on everyone’s agenda, that the artist is not alone. Sometimes it’s done with a purpose — to call out evil and demand it show itself, to propose a better way to live. That one is why I fell in love with music. Lyrics like John Lennon’s — ‘you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one” — inspired me to want to be an artist as well; in my case, primarily to become a great writer.

I succumbed to the artist as genius fantasy that has only come true a handful of times in all the history of man. I thought my insights, ideas, and beliefs were important, and I should share them to help others make better sense of this crazy life of ours. I knew I had better than average writing talent, and therefore believed it was only a matter of time before I hit upon the right outlet for what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I didn’t want to be a writer for a career — churning out horror stories or legal thrillers or spy thrillers for the paperback market…or researching and writing non-fiction books and articles. I wanted to be the next Hemingway, the voice of an entire generation. I thought the power of ideas combined with writing skills would triumph over my utter lack of proper schooling and the guidance of older, more experienced writers. Here I am, 53 years old, still a very capable writer, but as yet, an unpublished one. I have succeeded mainly (so far) to just get stuff out of me that needed to come out.

This is why I have admired your path — you had creative drive as a child, and you wanted to express things your way, but you also accepted training and coaching and practicing. You went to a school that matched your aspirations. What I know you’re struggling to reconcile now is whether you have been training to become an artist, or whether you have been training to have a profession centered around artistic endeavors. No matter what your beliefs may be when it comes to economic systems, all such systems include a mechanism for human beings to exchange their labor for the means to provide for their needs. We require food to survive, shelter to shield us from weather’s extremes. Most of us are not capable of providing these things completely for ourselves. We need to exchange our time and labor for money, which in turn can be offered in exchange to the people who are capable of producing food and shelter. They in turn, can use the money to provide for the things in their lives that they are not capable of doing for themselves. Which of course begs the question — is there any demand for artistic output from people who can’t produce it for themselves? The answer of course depends on so much. Clearly there is demand for entertainment that we think of and often call art — a movie, a book, a concert — but are the people providing those things truly “artists”, or are they entertainers? Is poverty a merit badge for true art?

I called you a true artist this summer. I meant it in a number of ways, looking back. In admiration, I meant that you were deeply committed to producing creative work, passionate about it. In practice, I meant that you had real vision, something important to say, and the ability to see how you wanted to say it. In concern, I meant that you would only find happiness if you could spend your life as an artist, with no regard for whether or not the art you produced was ‘tradeable’ for the means to provide you food and shelter. I do believe the world needs artists who can inspire us, force us to think deeper and differently about human potential and the human condition, amaze us with the execution of their vision. There just is no way to know whether such artists will have to find ways outside of their passions to pay the bills. Your recent facebook post was interesting on this topic. In places it seemed to damn ‘professional preparation’ and the marketplace, when to me they are not mutually exclusive from true art. In other places it acknowledged that the romantic ideal of lonely geniuses toiling away in a grotto to churn out this art that was burning a hole in their minds was a bit of a fantasy. Even great artists benefit from training, education, and practice. I fell into the latter trap and now daydream occasionally of going back to school to become what I should have worked harder to become — a professional writer, not an artistic genius. When we had that conversation, I encouraged you to explore the various ways artists can find benefactors in today’s age. The article you posted talked about ‘patrons’, loans, and gifts. Today, those patrons can be foundations whose purpose in formation is to ensure the arts a place in a society that sorely needs them, but one that is filled with people who can’t always find the value in them. All is not lost for true art and true artists!

To close this rambling rumination, I share a simple homily I’d never heard before, but found so appropriate. It was literally on a sign in one of the vendors today — something someone will buy in a gift shop some day:

Life isn’t about how to survive the storm, but how to dance in the rain.

I love you, I’m always here for you, I am your father and your patron, and a lot of me is in you. Stay fearless!