Posted by: M.C. | 10 February 2011

Yes, but…

“People might think you’re sad,” she said. My wife was talking about my latest blog posts, and I could understand what she meant. Lately I’ve described myself as lost, struggling, invisible, poorly understood. It makes sense that someone might look at those descriptions and conclude that I’m feeling down about my life. But yesterday afternoon and last night I heard a speaker talk about art and what it does, and she said something that struck me. Art beautifies, she said, but it also questions. And it began to occur to me that this unsettled state in which I’ve spent so much of my life isn’t a sign of depression or unhappiness.

As long as I can remember I’ve questioned whatever conventional wisdom I’ve encountered. Within the traditionalism of my Catholic upbringing, I was both very devout and very unhappy with the slow pace of change within the church. Within the intellectualism of the liberal and academic worlds I now occupy, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the kind of absolute characterizations of those who disagree. In an age of speed and technology, I want us to slow down and look each other in the face. I used to think it meant that I could never find a home in any community because I always seem to find something wrong with any community; however much I appreciate what any group offers, I can’t help seeing the cracks and the silences and the blindness to other perspectives. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I always have to play the devil’s advocate. But it’s never been a game or an intellectual exercise. It’s just that I can’t help seeing every conclusion, every generalization as—in part—a lie. Every time we say something definitive about how the world works, we have to leave out all the qualifications and exceptions and individuals cases that contradict that conclusion. For every welfare cheat, there is a struggling mother doing everything she can to give her children a better life; for every deadbeat dad there is a divorced or single father devoted to his children’s wellbeing. For every selfish corporate giant, there is a genuine philanthropist. And sometimes these opposites reside not just in the same community but in the same person.

I know that we have to make generalizations and draw conclusions in order to make decisions. I know that policies can’t be based on single individuals but on general tendencies as best we can identify them. But something in my nature never wants us to forget that these tendencies which we like to treat as objective facts are categories of our own creation. It occurs to me that my own desire to push and probe and question has everything to do with the art of my life. I love words and I love writing because words always slip out from under us; they force me, when I take them seriously, to have to consider and reconsider exactly what I’m trying to say. That is their danger and that is their pleasure. And this unsettled, uncertain perspective that I have often considered a burden may in fact be a gift. On more than one occasion, I have made others weary with my continual probing and arguing, but despite what they may think, for me it has never been about winning. It’s about what composition scholar Ann Berthoff called “the continuing audit of meaning.” It’s an itch I can’t stop scratching. And for the first time in a long time—maybe for the first time ever in my life—I’m beginning to think of it not as destructive but as creative and generative. It comes from a desire to keep extending myself and challenging others to wrestle with what we think we know. Sometimes I have found that wrestling painful, but I’m beginning to realize that gives birth to the art that is the act of my living.

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