What do we want when we ask people to help us with things we can’t do ourselves? Usually we’re looking for precision, like the kind we may ask of a surgeon before the anesthesiologist sends us for a nap. Oftentimes we’re looking for elegance, as when the architect who’s designing that addition to your home comes up with a clever way to catch the morning sunlight without adding additional cost. Sometimes we’re looking for stimulation, like when you listen intently to endless demo recordings trying to find that perfect band to play at your wedding without spending a fortune. But how often are we looking for something that’s genuinely new?
For many people religion reinforces what’s already familiar, what’s safe. Art reminds us about our humanity, what moves us to create. Plenty of people will say that religion has been the inspiration for countless pieces of art, but even though history proves this to be true, I think it’s an intellectual red herring. The profound power of familiarity should not be taken as a proof of reality.
Ang Lee tries to touch this in his masterful cinematic adaptation of the book Life of Pi. In the story two Japanese investigators question the protagonist about his tale of an extraordinary ordeal at sea. Lee stages this scene brilliantly, placing the main character in the center of the frame, seated upright in a hospital bed, nothing but a white wall behind him as the camera pushes in slowly. Without visual context, we’re forced to listen to the story without artifice, without distraction. Free of external stimulation, the story meets our own, private preconceptions of reality head on, and we’re faced with a mirror to our own view of reality.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, it’s about an almost impossible-to-believe tale of survival, a boy and a tiger surviving for months alone in the vast Pacific Ocean. Color, sounds, high drama, and intense introspection propel a fully visceral experience. The boy telling his tale to the Japanese investigators does not present himself as an incredible witness, but his story nonetheless does not resonate truthfully. For the investigators there are no analogues, and of course, there is no evidence. Therefore it simply cannot be believed, even as the main character tells it calmly and with surprising dispassion.
The power of the scene comes from a feeling we’ve all had. It’s tough to accept a bold idea that doesn’t at least resonate with experiences and ideas we’ve had before. Anything genuinely fantastical is always threatening. Star Wars got crummy reviews in it’s initial showing; no one had seen anything like it before. Remember that Apple commercial a decade ago, when the wizards of Cupertino started to turn the company around? “Here’s to the crazy ones,” it began. We all smile knowingly because we intuitively understand: all inventors of genuinely new ideas are nuts until they’re proven sane. The message to take from these examples should be a clarion call to listen, to see, to be brave. There have been adventurers who’ve gone beyond the horizon and by their bold actions taught us to take heart, to be not afraid, or, if we cannot fathom that kind of bravura, at least not to be daunted.
But you’re thinking, “I’m a suburbanite. I do quality assurance for a kitchen remodeling business. What’s brave about that?”
Don’t miss this. It’s not the narrative trappings of brave tales that makes them brave. When you ask someone to listen to you you’re asking them to trust you. When you actively listen to someone else, you’re implicitly committing yourself to be open to what he or she has to say. In that transaction the seeds of a brave existence germinate.
Try love. True and genuine love is always the high wire creative enterprise where stabilizing familiarity requires endless reinvention, discovery, and risk. Complacent expectation is the death of love, just as a lack of familiarity denies the potential for intimacy. If you replace the word love with art, you get precisely the same thing.
So? Art = love? Is that the message? Or is it love= art?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Maybe the important message here is that you may not be asking the right questions of yourself. When we ask ourselves what we want when we ask people to help us with things we can’t do ourselves, we’re allowing ourselves to think creatively. Still unsure? Remember: when we open ourselves to thoughts and experiences we cannot entirely control, we open the doors to creativity. That makes everything possible.
PS — Yes, yes, here’s where the good people of 1AU ask our dear readers to share what you’ve read with friends and colleagues. And here’s the place where you think, “Oh, sure, one more imposition of my precious time.” Well, we’re asking. It’s something we value above rubies, above gold: if you like an idea enough to give it a moment’s thought, then consider giving it a measure of freedom. When you share an idea with another person, you release an idea to grow freely in the world.
Like what you see? Set it free.