What it is to be an artist. What it is to be human.

I saw this very touching clip of Anthony Griffith talking about the death of his daughter and it got me thinking.

Beautiful for its honesty and for its humanity.

The human species is magnificent in what we can accomplish while suffering.  The obviously sad part of Griffith’s story was the death of his daughter.  The more subtle travesty was how a man was trapped by the expectation that he shouldn’t mourn for the benefit of others.  The irony is that his audiences needed this story more than they needed the laughs, but in this world mirrors are less marketable than funny masks.

The beauty of honesty, particularly honesty well-phrased, is its ability to connect us to one another by the thread of empathy.  I am often asked when I speak somewhere how I can share so much of my life, from my polyamory to my mental illness to my atheism.  It’s simply been a long time since I saw a reason not to.   Some people will not relate to those things, which makes it hard for them to relate to someone whose composition includes those things.  For those who have never lost a child, like myself, after that video we are made to consider what it means to care for someone who has.  Many people at Skepticon last year were unaware of how painful mental illness can be, but now they can be closer to those in their lives who suffer from it.

But when we open ourselves, many people will be able to relate to us.  Many of those people will have long stayed quiet about these things.  How many people watching Griffith’s story who had lost children were, for the first time, cried along with someone rather than by themselves?  In the cases of poly, anorexia, atheism, and other subjects, silence usually derives from fear or shame.  Few know why they’re ashamed, they just know that they are, and they wonder if they are a bad person.  Others will wonder if their extended sadness makes them weak.  Lots of people don’t think they should be ashamed, but they remain quiet anyway, all the while wondering how many other people know how it feels.  I want to show them that I know it feels; that sadness is just as much a part of life as laughing.  Just like there is a myriad of actions that say “I love you” more powerfully than any words, sharing our suffering or our quirks is how the brave say “You’re not alone.”

Even when we can get past the societal impulse to shun our nature, many of us have jobs, and jobs have a way of keeping us from telling the truth sometimes.  Whatever I wind up doing with my life, I never want to be trapped by what I do.  If the world is ugly, I want to be able to put it into words without any expectation that I should be making people smile, and regardless of what people want to hear.  If the world is beautiful, I want to capture as much of it as I can to share with others, ignoring any suggestions that I should tone it down.

I am a human being.  I want to do good and I want to love myself.  There are struggles and joys, failures and successes bursting out of me, and they’re all part of the human experience.  If I must hide those qualities to be beautiful, then I’m not beautiful.   When people look at me, I want them to see humanity without pretension as it is, otherwise any judgments of beauty are meaningless.

This, I think, is what it is to be an artist: the ability to bleed without pretension and without losing one’s eloquence  with as little reservation as one laughs.  It is to be human without apology.  This is why art touches us.  If Griffith’s story was anything like my talk at Skepticon last year, then he didn’t plan for it to be that way; he just knew he had to tell the story and once he committed to honesty the rest took care of itself.  Those moments are rare, but in them we get a glimpse into the heart of every person who has ever suffered, and we’re reminded that no person is an island.

I am JT, I miss my family every day.

I have cheated on a girlfriend one time in my life.  I never told her, and I regret it.

There are people I dislike, but almost every one of them knows it and knows why.  I’m very proud of this.

I’m an anorexic who has had few problems with food for the last several months.  This is a good thing, but I have gained weight which makes me bitter against being “better.”  I keep making myself eat anyway because I know it’s best.

I think the world is beautiful, which is why I get so upset about all the things that conspire to make it ugly.

My parents were wise enough to know that disobedience wasn’t always disobedience; sometimes it was exploring.  I worry I would not be able to tell the difference with my own child.

I’m a very independent person who loves a woman in Kansas very much, so much so that it worries me at times.

Despite these things and more, I feel no guilt being happy.  Nor do I feel weak.  I am a good person, and these are the things that make me human.  They are the subtext beneath every blog post, every smile, every talk, every hug, and every laugh.

That humans can accomplish so much with all this baggage is what redeems us, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • http://markkoop.blogspot.ca/ Mark

    Thanks for sharing this, JT.
    Beautiful story. Beautiful commentary.

  • roxby

    “There are seven incarnations (and six correlates) necessary to becoming an Artist: 1. Explorer (Courage) 2. Surveyor (Vision) 3. Miner (Strength) 4. Refiner (Patience) 5. Designer (Intelligence) 6. Maker (Experience) 7. Artist. ¶ First, you must leave the safety of your home and go into the dangers of the world, whether to an actual territory of some unexamined aspect of the psyche. This is what is meant by ‘Explorer.’ ¶ Next, you must have the vision to recognize your destination once you arrive there. Note that a destination may sometimes also be the journey. This is what is meant by ‘Surveyor.’ ¶ Third, you must be strong enough to dig up facts, follow veins of history, unearth telling details. This is what is meant by ‘Miner.’ ¶ Fourth, you must have the patience to winnow and process your material into something rare. This may take months or even years. And this is what is mean by ‘Refiner.’ ¶ Fifth, you must use your intellect to conceive of your material as something meaning more than its origins. This is what is meant by ‘Designer.’ ¶ Six, you must fashion a work independent of everything that has gone before it including yourself. This is accomplished through experience and is what is meant by ‘Maker.’ ¶ At this stage, the work is acceptable. You will be fortunate to have progressed so far. It is unlikely, however, that you will go any farther. Most do not. But let us assume that you are exceptional. Let us assume you are rare. What then does it mean to reach the final incarnation? Only this: at every stage, from 1 thru 6, you will risk more, see more, gather more, process more, fashion more, consider more, love more, suffer more, imagine more, and in the end know why less means more and leave what doesn’t and keep what implies and create what matters. This is what is meant by ‘Artist.’”

    Mark Z. Danielewski – House of Leaves

  • roxby

    I loved this post, JT. Profoundly.

  • VinceNance

    Perhaps success in being an authentic, honest, sincere person is like a person drowning in the ocean who suddenly decides to shed their armor in order to breathe. I have recently been dismantling my own, and I respect and admire the process – air tastes good.

  • http://leftinlowell.com Mr. Lynne

    Matt Dillahunty mentioned the nature of ‘art’ (or some else close to that subject) some many months ago on axp. At the time I remember thinking that I really needed to sit him down with some beers and go over all the ideas packaged in and around the concept of ‘art’. I explored the ideas very thoroughly in my undergrad years (because of a minor artistic ‘crisis’ of sorts – wound up with a philosophy minor for my trouble) and came to some conclusions that sort of tie into Matt’s ideas around the superiority of secular morality.

    Now I’m similarly running around in my head thinking about this post. You seem to not get to the Northeast very much, but if I see that you’re in the Boston area anytime soon I’m definitely going to try and track you down for a coffeehouse or pub meeting.

  • Art Vandelay

    Wow. That was powerful.