A few weeks back I went to an exhibition called Négritude at Exit Art in New York City. I enjoyed the artwork—specifically some very beautiful photography from Mario Cravo Neto; some intriguing text (to accompany video shorts) and needlework from Wura-Natasha Ogunji; a great collection of album covers in an installation by Xaviera Simmons; and a display of photobooks featuring images from the African continent as well as the African diaspora.
One piece stopped me in my tracks. (The tagging of the work was sometimes unclear so I’m not 100 percent sure I’m attributing the piece to the right artist but…) It was called “Lines of Communication” by Lonnie Holley. The piece featured tangled wires attached to a phone receiver. The wires—bare and mismatched—traveled through and around various obstacles such as rocks, nails, and other items. The entire piece is anchored in foam and fitted into a packing crate. I was caught by the piece not because it was beautiful, but because it was a perfect and humorous visual metaphor for tangled communications. While chuckling softly at the piece in the gallery, I was thinking of one person in particular with whom I share very prickly communications.
Well, earlier this week when a friend decided he no longer wanted to live, I thought of that piece again. That same tangle of wires that represented communication now seemed to me to exemplify the bewildering paths that a life might take, up and around obstacles, disappearing from view before, hopefully, jumping back on track. Holley’s piece and my friend’s suicide attempt made me think about how we can be fooled by our perceptions; how we can see a path, a cord of communication, disappearing and think that—because it has disappeared from view—we are at our path’s end; we have failed, and the entire conversation (or in my friend’s case, life) is over.
Life is a true balancing act. Our intelligence is what marks us as human, but it fills us with hubris too. With the brain—which we believe to be a reliable instrument of truth—as our guide, we think that if we can’t see a way out, there is no way out. We are certain that if we don’t know exactly what steps we’re going to take to lead to the life of our dreams, we aren’t going to get there. We feel that if our most fervent attempts to change a situation come to naught, there’s nothing that can be done.
But the truth is, we don’t know.
With all our inventions and technological advances, there is not one machine, process, or procedure that can tell us without fail how things will turn out. We can’t ascertain the results of athletic competitions, of academic studies, of pregnancies, of relationships. Of political infighting or of international warfare. The bottom line is we don’t know from day to day, minute to minute, how life will turn out.
In a Train of Thought poster on the MTA, Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying:
“If we could know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it” — Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided” speech, 1858
What is unsaid in that quote is that we would be the better for it. The quote suggests that we could live life better and make decisions better if we knew where we are headed. That we could avoid making mistakes or being blindsided by unknown factors. We try so hard to avoid failure because, as a species, we don’t handle it well. Failure takes us to the depth of the darkest abyss, even when faced with the irrefutable truth that life is always mutating and changing. That good can turn into bad, can turn into okay, can turn into pretty damn great with no conscious effort of our own.
As intelligent as human beings are, we are also (on a whole) risk adverse. We want to know where is this going? Where is this conversation going? Where is this relationship going? Where is this vein of art taking me? Is it going to be good when I get there? The idea of us, moving through life, blinded, holding on to a few frayed cords as we edge forward is unbearable to us.
Rather than admit that our intelligence is limited, we prefer to live as if we know. We prefer to live as if we can reason our way out of every problem (or into any situation we desire). If our career isn’t working, it’s wholly our fault and all we need to do is find a solution and implement it. Just put down that fifth piece of pie, stop buying cigarettes, don’t call back that toxic friend/lover, and get off our asses and make our art. Yet we don’t. For reasons we can’t understand, we have productive times and droughts. We have beautiful relationships and ugly battles. We are crazed with frustration when we watch ourselves “going backwards” or “going nowhere.”
All this reliance on reason is a surefire formula for misery. The brain is a problem solver, but it’s also a problem maker. The brain has so many tricks, shadows, and obstacles that sometimes it can take major effort to be aware of simple facts and feelings.
Your brain tells you you should be a brilliant artist but then tells you your work sucks. It’s a task master that motivates you to get to work, as well as a judge and critic that laughs at your efforts. Your brain wants you to believe you should be further along than you are. The brain wants you to believe that if you are strong enough, all you have to do is declare that you are done with unhealthy behaviors, and then torments you when you fall into old patterns. The brain, in other words, is a mind-fucker. Be wary of which bits of it you trust.
I have found faith to be a better friend. When my brain tells me who I am and what I should be doing, I say “I am who I am and I accept where I am.” When my brain tells me I should know better than make an unhealthy choice or not take a healthy action, I say “I feel what I feel and I can only be what I am. I will go through this and I will become new.” I know now that the rusty wire that’s connecting where I am to where I’m going may slope sharply downwards, may double back; might lead me through a waterfall or tunnel me into hell. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the me I am. The faith I place in myself and my life, the love I share with myself and others, and the art I create along the way. It only matters that I continue moving forward.
At the end of the day, it is not our job to know, it’s our job to journey. We must keep moving forward, making our art, living our lives, and fighting the good fight of a life well-lived. It isn’t important how long it takes to get from here to there because there is always another leg of the journey. What matters is knowing that at every stage of life there is another facet of you waiting to join you, waiting to thrive within the expanded walls of yourself.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam