A long while ago, in what now feels like another life, I was a painter–acrylics on canvas. I took it seriously enough that my portfolio at one point won me a $50,000 visual arts fellowship.
I was, however, a terrible student of art. Something about being “assigned” an art project or having to work with a boring medium spelled absolute disaster for me. On the one hand, if an idea popped into my head, I could dive myself into a canvas for literal hours without coming up for air. It was like there was this determination to finish the piece that came over me. The moment I was asked to produce something, though, even if I found the subject interesting, I lost the sense that it was my art, or even art at all. My motivation just disappeared. What did get done was done haphazardly and was something I regarded as a chore.
I suppose you could say I just have a problem with authority, and maybe I do, but I think this was something different. I think it was a creeping lack of control that put an end to my motivation.
That’s because I’ve seen this trend not just in my art, but in nearly everything I do. Hell, I can spend a few hours at work trying to write one good email and then the moment I’m off work, I write eight paragraphs about my quarantine experience in twenty minutes.
The thought of not being in control is what’s incapacitating. It’s my art, it’s my life, in which case it’s my responsibility, come success or failure.
Thing is, I suppose you could say that’s a me issue, unique to my own psychological dysfunction, and there’s probably some degree of truth to that, but if I could just, I dunno, project onto everybody else right now, I want to suggest that we all are struggling with control issues on some level or another, and right now, this moment we’ve inherited as this virus spreads the world over, the one thing eating at us more than anything else is our complete and total lack of it.
We’re a species that is actually really good at finding the kinds of solutions we need to at least give us the false sense of being in charge of our lives. To some degree, after all, taking charge is exactly what we can do when we wash our hands or put on a mask or gloves, following the general rules of public health. But when the solution to the problem we’re facing is to confine ourselves in isolation as though we’ve become voluntary prisoners, we enter a kind of strange liminal space: I’ve chosen to be here, and for that reason I’m in control; simultaneously, I’m only choosing to be here because the circumstances before me have limited my options and to do anything else is to expose myself to death. It’s a choice, but not much of one. And so we find ourselves living in this odd transitional period ripe with death more than it seems abundant with life.
Death itself is something we have no control over: we can try as hard as we can to prolong it and can have limited success with that but it ultimately comes for us. The ultimate concern of this horrific moment in our history is just that: whether we hold it off through the next year or not, it creeps around and forces us to stare at it vis-à-vis making us consider our lack of control over our own mortality, and that of those we love.
What can be done, then? What are our options when our ability to manipulate, to scheme, to plead and bargain, to take back control, running through those stages of grief, are all exhausted?
They’re the same as they are in the face of all grief: acceptance and, with it, submission of will. All other choices only cause more anguish.
And though admittedly, I don’t like that word, “submission,” for many reasons, I think it’s important to note that I don’t mean “submission” in some “lay down and give up” kind of way so much as I mean a giving in or a giving over to the sense of self you currently carry that says, “I can do this on my own,” or “I don’t need your help,” and instead choose a different path–one of authentic lamentation, one of asking, anyone who will listen, to do just that, listen, or maybe more if they can.
And if all options are still exhausted, we at least discovered, in the asking, and in the response, that we did not go quietly or in isolation or alienated in a silent world. Our discordant, somber voice was no solo lost in some echo chamber but becomes a collective chorus with the most straightforward joy that arrives when we sound our own minor despair against the major hopes others bring our way.
When we choose that kind of acceptance, the sacred reality that what will be will be, open to what may come and with acknowledgement we’ve nowhere to go but up, we take back the power that’s been robbed from us when we had everything to lose. And then we find in that moment that the simplest things were our sustenance. That all our lives we spent wondering, “Is it enough? Have I done enough? Am I enough?” when enough had been met and surpassed long before.
A phone call, a text from an old friend, a pen pal, a video chat, a kind comment on a website, holding a sign up from a distance, putting our fingers to a loved one’s on the window pane: we are not out of options. We will never be.
As for me, I’ll paint, maybe not with acrylics, maybe not what I had in mind to draw up on the canvas. But the brush will meet the cotton in the colors that were available, and this work of art is shared.