Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Cloud of Unknowing

If you grow up with a strong religious background, you grow up with a definite worldview that basically makes sense, and can serve you well.  But then, eventually, as an adult, you have to come to terms with the fact that your religious views do not fit with the way many millions of intelligent adults view the world, that your religious views are ultimately based on faith, not knowledge.  This usually happens around college, and can be quite a painful process.  That's when it happened for me.  I had a sort of "crisis of faith" and emerged as a kind of agnostic.  As one medieval mystic put it, I emerged into "A Cloud of Unknowiing."

Being an agnostic is not as easy as it sounds (at least not for me).  It's not as though I've given up trying to understand how the world works.  It's just that I'm painfully aware of my own lack of knowledge.  My response to the discomfort of not knowing is a desperate attempt to learn as much as I can, to read as much as I can.  But, as any serious reader knows, the more you learn, the more you realize you don't know, the more questions emerge.

This realization of your own ignorance can be both liberating and terrifying.  There is a certain fun and pleasure that comes with learning new things.  But, at the end of every book (or at least academic books), there are pages and pages of references, more and more to read and learn.

What is one to do?  How is one to live in such a state of unknowing?  I remember, in the midst of my crisis of faith, discovering art and writing as powerful ways to externalize this never-ending search.  That's probably why I ended up becoming a writing teacher and owning an art gallery.  For me, art and writing (and music) are not "hobbies."  They are the primary way in which I try to make sense of an incredibly complex world.  That's why I'm writing this.  I was out for a walk this past Sunday evening, thinking about these things, and felt compelled to write, to try to express what I think as clearly as I could.  Writing, for me, is a path to understanding, and also a kind of catharsis, or (to borrow religious language) an exorcism.  Writing brings me comfort, a similar sort of comfort that praying or singing brings people.  If I can't get this stuff out, it just jumbles around in my mind and makes me anxious and miserable.  I feel better when I write.  It's like therapy.  I think this is why people paint or take photographs or make music.  It's a way to give form to our struggle to understand.

The more I read, and write, and make art, and engage with the world creatively, the more inspired I feel to keep on creating and searching.  And the more I do this, the more I get a clearer sense of what I'm really interested in.  I was recently talking to my friend Steve Elkins about this, about how/why we (as artists) choose to focus our gaze more intensely on certain subjects.  Why do we create what we create?  Why are we interested in the particular things we are interested in?  These are questions with complex answers.  But, whatever the reasons, I've begun to discover (after much reading and writing and searching) some particular things to focus my gaze upon.  In the whole vastness of the world, I've become keenly interested in reading, writing, and making art about my particular community:  Fullerton, Orange County, California.

Over the past few years, I've developed a growing sense that , in looking deeply at one particular human community (its history, culture, politics, and social problems), I might get a clearer sense of what I'm supposed to do with my life.  Having this focus gives me purpose, makes me feel that I'm doing something worthwhile and not just wallowing in the cloud of unknowing.  I realize the limits of my own knowledge, but (as academics do), I'm finding my particular specialty, and that gives me the framework to make sense of my world, and a path forward through all the uncertainty that comes with being an adult human being in a big and complex universe.


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