Friday, September 23, 2011

The Creative Urge

For most of my life I've been a decidedly left-brain kind of guy. As a child, I was never much good at things like music or drawing, preferring instead to spend my time in contemplation of the mysteries of the universe. Religion was always my favorite subject, and, although I went to Fordham University with the intention of majoring in psychology, after my first philosophy class, I knew immediately that I had found my calling. No other discipline I had ever encountered hurt my brain quite so much as philosophy, and every other subject seemed quite banal in comparison.

Until the age of 40, in fact, I managed to avoid anything having to do with "artsy fartsy" activities. Travelling through Europe, I dutifully passed through all the major art museums, just to check them off my list. I wrote a few poems when I was 20, but gave that all up when I became a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Leuven. The arts just seemed far too frivolous to me when compared to the majesty of the First Science.

Then in 2001, I had my great upheaval. My entire universe seemed flat, squalid, and uninteresting. And philosophy for the first time was unable to console me. It was at that moment, when nothing else in life seemed to work for me, that the creative urge suddenly took hold of me. Together with two friends on the faculty, I had come up with an idea for a new learning community for freshmen centered around the creative experience. Our program was modeled after the innovative one at Black Mountain College, and the crazy idea we had was for the faculty to participate in the creative process along with the students. If the students had to write poetry and flash fiction, paint, and do photography, then I was determined to do exactly the same. If we were constantly encouraging the students to break free of their bourgeois sensibilities and "get freaky," then I was going to have to get freaky along with them.

In the process of helping students to develop their creative potentials, something amazing happened. I discovered that I enjoyed creating as much--and perhaps even more--than the students did. New sensibilities opened up to me that made my safe, static one-dimensional universe suddenly become vibrant with psychedelic possibilities. I wrote incredibly silly poems and did some weird nose art just to prove that I was still able to play--the most important thing in life, I've discovered, much to my own amazement.

The poetry I wrote and the paintings and photographs I produced would definitely not have won any awards (most of my work was fairly derivative and juvenile). But that wasn't the point of engaging in these activities. The point was to tap into the inner core of my being--that place from which the creative well-spring arises--and produce something that reflected my own inner life, as bizarre, silly, and inane as that might be. It didn't matter at all if no one appreciated what I was trying to do, because I was doing it completely and totally for myself.

This fall, yet another class of wide-eyed freshmen will be passing through our Creative Experience program. If they are anything like previous groups, they will bitch, moan, and complain about all the work they have to do for the program. In the end, however, I know that almost all of them will discover hidden artistic talents within themselves that they probably didn't even know existed. And I will be creating right alone side them...not because it's expected of me, but because I now understand that creating is what human beings must do in order to make sense of this crazy world of ours.

Don Hazlitt guiding me in the creative act.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Authenticity: It's Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

In the current digital age, in which people take on multiple personas depending upon whom they are interacting with on-line, there has recently been an attempt to market authenticity as the virtue of the moment (see “Authentic: Get Real”). Celebrities as diverse as Michele Bachman, Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric, Ophra, and even Pope Benedict XVI have been touting the importance of presenting an image of the authentic self—our true inner selves as opposed to the fictitious ones that we often create for ourselves.

While I think that it is charming that an existential concept like authenticity is finding its way into mainstream culture, I wonder whether this recent need to be—or at least appear—authentic is all that desirable or even possible.

I’ve spent the past 25 years searching for my own authentic self in vain. Instead what I’ve discovered is that there are numerous “Mikes” that rise and fall depending upon the specific situations in which I find myself and the specific people with whom I am interacting. The discovery that there is no real me in me was at first a dispiriting proposition, especially for the younger me who was really, really into me and believed that the me I thought was me was truly the authentic me (Whew! That was a tough one to get out!).

In recent years, however, my study of Buddhism has shown me that the quest for a real or authentic self is something of a delusion. The Buddha’s central insight was that there actually is no abiding Self that exists throughout time and space at the core of the human being. Instead, what we have are thoughts, emotions, and sensations that are experienced in the moment but which don’t actually belong to any permanent or enduring Self.

My youthful quest to discover my “authentic self’ has given way, therefore, to a greater appreciation for what I would call “existential fluidity.” I came upon this concept from my six-year study of one of my personal heroes, Mr. Bob Dylan. During his 50-year career as a musician, Dylan has transformed himself so many times that it was often difficult to keep track of all his assorted mutations. There was Dylan the folk singer, Dylan the social activist, Dylan the leader of the Counter-Culture, Dylan the country singer, Dylan the family man, Dylan the evangelical, Dylan the painter, and so on. There was never any one Bob Dylan, which is probably what the recent film about him was so aptly called “I’m Not There.” Instead what you have with Dylan was a man who prided himself on his ability to evolve with time and circumstances, who tried on numerous personas to see how they fit, and to who kept challenging himself to grow as an artist and a human being through his long life. He’s still going strong at 70 and his music now is as intriguing as it was when he was 21, even if it is completely different from any sort of music he created before.

Existential fluidity. It means I don’t have to be concerned at all about “finding my authentic self,” because I recognize that I am a being in flux at all times, always evolving, always growing, and, hopefully, always maturing. I can try to resist this change by obsessing about “the real me” and being miserable as a result, or I can embrace it and allow myself to gracefully flow along with the world around me.

Existential fluidity is a liberating concept because it also means that I can’t ever be pegged by other people as this or that kind of person. When someone says to me, “Mike, you are so _______” (fill in the blank), I can respond: “I don’t know who you’re talking about. That may be the picture of me that you’ve created in your own mind, but it sure as hell ain’t me.” And no one, then, can fit you into his or her petty, constricted little boxes.

Existential fluidity also means that I don’t have to feel guilty for trying new things, taking on new projects, or embracing new experiences (however unconventional they might appear to others), because this is precisely what a being in flux does. If I’m accused of being a dabbler, or lacking serious focus, I can simply say, “Amen!” So I dabble, and in dabbling discover amazing new dimensions to my ever-evolving being. In my dabbling I become reborn, renewed, and reimagined. I can be a philosopher, a poet, a high priest, revolutionary, saint, a manic doer of deeds, or a deliciously lethargic slug. I can be all these things at different times or all these things at once...and ALL of them are the real me without being really me at all.

So let the Oprahs and Katies of the world waste their time trying to be authentic. I’d prefer to spend the little time I have left embracing my utter and complete lack of any sort authenticity…and live a much richer life as a result.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Confessions of a Eurosnob

I just read a provocative editorial in the New York Times Sunday Review by Robert Reich, that captured exactly why I wish I was living in Europe again. The editorial was entitled “The Limping Middle Class” and used some wonderful data to show how, since the late 1970s, real wages for the middle class have been declining at the same time that the very rich in this country were experiencing record earnings.

I won’t bother to summarize all of Reich’s points, because the article should be read in its entirety by any person who truly cares about the future of our country. Suffice to say, Reich believes that the growth of income inequality in the United States has been a disaster for the working classes (no surprise there). But he also maintains that the existence of such radical inequality doesn’t bode all that well for American business either, since there aren’t enough rich people in our country (or in the rest of the world) to purchase all the wonderful tinkers-toys that U.S. corporation love to produce. When the middle class stops consuming—as they are right now—the mighty engines of American capitalism must inevitably come grinding to a halt. In short, the stupid, short-sighted greed of the ruling classes has created a situation where now their own bloated wealth is going to start to be threatened. Tough luck, suckers!

Short of a revolt on the part of the working classes in this country (which is unlikely to happen) there is no easy way out of this fix. Henry Ford understood that he had to at least pay his workers enough so that they could buy his cars; the current ruling elite in this country—and their cronies in Congress—are either too stupid or too venal to grasp this simple fact. And so they squeeze the earning power of the average worker and then are surprised that this is now having a detrimental effect on our economy.

So what does all this have to do with Europe? Certainly that continent has more than its own share of economic problems. The difference is that countries like Germany and France protect their workers and ensure that they receive living wages, decent benefits, generous vacation time, and of course universal health insurance. The relative income equality in almost every European country and the well-designed safety net that these countries have in place means that average Europeans haven’t been devastated during this current economic down-turn the way their American counterparts have.

Let me use one example to illustrate the basic difference between American and European forms of capitalism. When I was in Belgium this summer, a friend of mine, who is an American married to a Belgian woman, had recently lost his job. When he went to the unemployment office in his local city, he was automatically provided with generous unemployment benefits (about 80% of his former salary for the first year) and given outplacement assistance to help him find another job. He didn’t have to worry about his health insurance, because it wasn’t connected to his job, and he also didn’t have to worry about not being able to pay for his daughter’s university education, because it was almost free. Expressing concerns that he was in the job market again at the age of 50, the woman he was dealing with at the unemployment office put things in perspective for him. “Just be glad that you’re not living in the United States,” she said. “You’d really be in trouble then.”

The six years I spent living in Belgium has given me a wonderful appreciation for the kind of well-regulated European-style capitalism that is constantly being mocked by right wing pundits and tea-party politicians in this country. Certainly, it is difficult for Europeans to earn as much as the elite do in the U.S., because of their progressive taxation system. But this means that there is also not as many people struggling to survive every day as there are in this country.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to teach a political philosophy class at Rangsit University in Thailand. The students in the class came from all over Asia, and were naturally fascinated by the United States. Many of them said that they hoped that their own countries would develop along the lines of the United States. When I asked them why they looked to the U.S. as the model for their own countries, the general sentiment was that Americans seemed to have the best lifestyles of any people on earth.

This prompted me to do a bit of research, which I proceeded to share with the class:

1) In terms of economic inequality, our own C.I.A. studies rank the United States as one of the most unequal places on earth (just above Jamaica, Uganda, and the Philippines). The places with the least income inequality, not surprisingly, were in Europe with Sweden, Hungary, and Norway leading the pack.

2) In a recent study of quality of life in major world cities, no American city even made it into the top 30. The top three cities for quality of life: Vienna, Zurich, and Geneva.

3) In terms of overall happiness, once again European countries like Denmark, Switzerland, and Austria lead the pack with the United States ranked 23.

Based upon these and other similar studies (peacefulness ranking, overall health, infant mortality rates, numbers of people incarcerated, educational outcomes, environmental quality, rate of violent crime), life in the U.S. falls well behind that of many European countries. Based upon data like this alone, I told the students in my class that, if they were looking for countries to serve as viable models of development, they might want to study Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, since, by most standards, the overall quality of life in these countries is much higher then in the U.S.

The recent economic crisis the world is experiencing is showing the fault lines in global capitalism. The question is not whether capitalism itself should be replaced by some other economic system, but which version of capitalism will ultimately prove more resiliant in a period of economic uncertainty, global instability, and resource scarcity--the very period, in other words, that we seem to be living through right now.

I'm putting my money on the European model.