I start from nothing

I start from nothing. This is beautiful. There is nothing, and then there is something. The something that appears is there because I made the effort to put it there. You can credit God, my parents, my teachers and other adults who mentored and taught me things, but their hands didn’t make this thing. Their brains didn’t conceive it. They made me and shaped me, but I made this.

I am proud of it, no matter how much the rest of the world may criticize it. Of course, it’s not original in the sense that someone hasn’t made something like it before. But, I am earnest in my efforts not to copy or steal the work of others directly. I won’t even borrow a single note or phrase or lick or gesture or word from a thing they made.

In no time at all, I can see that this thing has taken on a predictive pattern, and is no longer dynamic and interesting. I add to my thing and I can see that it is too busy, I subtract and something is missing. I add again, and I have chaos, or at least a thing that’s not as elegant as it could be.

I get depressed. Maybe I am not is creative as I thought I was. The spirit to create is there, but the flesh is clumsy. It doesn’t matter how many classes I take or how much I practice. There is a chasm between my vision and the thing in front of me that I can’t seem to cross. Perhaps I need to become more of a being in this world. Not necessarily a completely worldly man with no sense whatsoever of a soul. Just a bit more time focusing on the outer world and less on the inner.

Before I know it, I have become a slug. I slurp away at content on my different devices. I consume articles, movies, shows and music. I even stoop so low as to play a few casual games, getting caught up in the mindless thrill of destroying zombies and racing birds in go-carts. Where did the time go? Where did my will and discipline go? What happened to the need for order and precision in my mind?

I begin again.

There is nothing, and then, I make something. Yesterday it was a painting, today it is a rambling, improvised piano or guitar tune. Tomorrow it will be the written word.

I start with emptiness, or to be more precise, emptiness as I can best visualize it. A dream leaks through the cracks. It’s a dream of going back to school, or a dream of never finishing school, or a dream of simply trying to get to class and getting lost. I learned something a long time ago that was important, and then my flesh made me forget it.

I had a harmony with others that persisted even into my college years. An unknowing sort of harmony. Even when I was at my most insistently vulgar, the faces that met my high schooler face were always smiling. I hadn’t frozen the scowl permanently yet. I was a being in this world, and I was connected to other beings in a most important way that I didn’t need to consciously realize.

Why did I lose it?

I blame it all on the Devil and his drink.

Nothing makes a man a monster like booze does. He thinks he can handle it, and that because he’s staying sober enough to get a college degree and hold down a steady, full-time professional occupation, the booze is not affecting him. The hours of recovery from a binge, and the hours of anticipating the next binge–those are the hours that slowly kill the man, and turn him into a zombie. The drink itself destroys brain cells and the liver, but the time spent in between drinks re-organizes the man’s neural pathways and converts them into dysfunctional dead ends.

Where once I could get by on letting my unconscious self communicate with others below the surface, I have to be keenly aware of what is rising up from my solar plexus and heart and sex at all times. Just the slightest tinge of a bad thought will make my face deepen into a black scowl that scares away even the hardiest of souls. If I intentionally scowl at someone, they just laugh because they think I’m being silly. I have to constantly be mindful of the energies inside of me and how they are impacting my facial muscles, so that I first keep my face serene, and then consciously deliver a sincere smile.

For all of this, there are those who are studied experts. They’ve been aware of these things since adolescence, and they can manipulate entire arenas with their words, modulated voices and body language.

I remember my trips to New York, SF and Rome. I fell in love with the beauty of the play between the planned creations of man and the organic structures and combinations of manmade stuff that arose up throughout the city. I felt guilty for loving the big, dense cities so much. Is this not a tendency toward idol worship? What does that say about me, that I’d rather be wandering a large city surrounded by the works of man, than be alone in a dark room lost in meditation and prayer? Do I not have enough faith that the City of God will be infinitely more beautiful to gaze upon than all of the works of man put together? Or, perhaps the City of God will, ultimately, be nothing more or less than God’s careful curation of man’s greatest hits? There is that part about the wheat and the chaff, after all. One would hardly hope that the wheat of the verse means only those who lived in empty rooms eating a little bread every other day and only drinking water while they feasted constantly upon the word of God. What a waste it would be, if God had intended all that his subjects created be merely fodder for the fire.

Of course, I could do without most of Las Vegas in heaven, though there are probably many that would disagree with that. I don’t need oil rigs and refineries, feedlots and slaughterhouses, offal burning plants, and coal mining operations. I would also hope that God would make such things part of the chaff as he embraces the creations of man that give most people delight.

I grab my tablet and hop on Google Earth. I fly in and out of Manhattan, sweeping through the 3D rendered buildings and popping down to street level to see the people who were walking by on the day the Googlecam went by. It’s one of the most incredible achievements in human history, that few people probably know about and take advantage of–this ability to go even into some buildings. I find myself in the conference room of a hotel that I’d visited as a kid when I drop my Google Pegman on top of the hotel. The Googlecam has been inside parts of the hotel itself, and now I can visit any time I like.

Of course, something is missing. There is a complaint from my internal sensibilities about how much this can really serve as a substitute for the real thing. There should be someone to share it with, and also a greater purpose involved here, other than simply floating aimlessly through cities and beaches that have been thoroughly photographed or recreated in 3D. There is no tension or drama or smells or sounds. Of course, movement isn’t perfect, and at times I’m pounding furiously on the tablet, to get my Pegman to move through the streets. The rendering seemingly takes forever in my world of instant gratification. The faces of people are often blurred for the sake of their privacy. The art museums are only partially available–a wing here, a room there.

Naturally, I am not completely satiated. I have created nothing and contributed nothing to all of this. It exists and grows or decays due to the work of others. In a flash, it all may be gone, and I am powerless to stop it. In another instant, it all may be available only to those who have the chip of the global ID and currency exchange embedded in them. I will be locked out, among the unprivileged and the newly made primitives left to scavange a pollution-ravaged earth in search of food and shelter where none is offered for those who don’t want to play by the New World Economy’s rules.

For now, I simply have a will to create. To make something simple, and add to it, bit by bit, as insights and revelations appear inside my head. It becomes a complex thing, a thing of horror and beauty–like an exquisitely made European auto driven by a Frankenstein monster. In an instant, my eyes can pick out the beautiful and ugly parts, no matter what they were intended to be upon first creation.

Somewhere inside my brain are a set of instructions embedded there, to be retrieved upon the mention of a trigger phrase or upon seeing a certain symbol or tableau before my eyes. I will suddenly have access to a wealth of information that may or may not be information I can really call my own. Does anything at all belong to me? Does my soul itself belong to somebody else when I die and do not have the gift of limbs and linear time to help control and move my soul in a focused sort of way?

My own soul seems to crave an onslaught of information. Perhaps it is a greedy whore of knowledge. My Lord wishes she, my soul, would be faithful only to the things of the Lord, but she lusts and pants after all manner of novel information that comes to her. She delights in being dropped into a place like NYC for the very reason that she can instantly receive a completely different set of visual cues by simply waiting for a traffic light to change on a street corner, or walking a block in any direction. The massive onslaught of this information is lost in the recreated worlds found inside Google Earth and Google Streets.

I am witnessing nothing more than a 2D snapshot, frozen in time, and made to trick my eyes into thinking it is 3D. All of the activity that transpired seconds after the Googlecam snapped the picture is gone, and only embedded in the memory banks of those who were there.

I feel a similar distress when I gaze at all of the books I’ve accumulated on my shelves. I know that if I were to read them all, I would be gifted with an amazing variety of information that delights my soul and takes me out of my everyday, predictable life. But, I can’t possibly access this information all at once, the same way I can take in a busy city streetcorner. I have to painstakingly begin the dry commentary of the editor in the preface and the author in the introduction, and then slowly become acclimated to the world that the writer created. After a few chapters, I am already feeling the same kind of ennui I feel from being penned up in the everyday world around me. It’s like I’ve left one predictable world for another.

Even the television begins to provide only a predictable set of information when I flip through all of the channels, constantly seeking something that my brains says is truly novel. Each channel, even the ones with breaking news, is telling stories that on some level seem to be the same stories I’ve seen on television my entire life. A new show about a new subculture or group of people is novel and exciting only for a few minutes. Once you’ve seen the wealthy or redneck family interact among each other for half of an episode, you have seen the entire season of the show, and every season that will follow it.

The pleasure of letting something evolve organically, and not trying to control every last little detail, is often overcome with the startling realization how easy it is to fall into a rut. The brain hits a groove of pleasure, and wants to play the same note over again, or the same three chords at the same tempo. The young people trying to assert their individualism by borrowing a mix of this and that from fashion of the past one hundred years end up all looking more similar to one another than a previous generation that had only a few styles down at the local Wards, Sears or Penneys to choose from.

So, how do you make something beautiful that doesn’t look like the production of it was controlled down to the last pixel, but not become overwhelmed with the chaos that comes with letting everything evolve completely organically, or the one-dimensional aesthetic rut that appears when unstudied eyes and hands attempt to think out of the box and express their individuality in a way that’s never been done before?

I begin again.

I don’t feel obliged to try to re-invent definitions of the beautiful and the sublime when plenty of artists and philosophers have mapped this out in the last 100 years. What I want to make note of are the particular sublime or beautiful moments in my own life–when I reached a place of living in which the pain brought on by a corrupt world couldn’t touch me. Perhaps these were moments of pure delusion, later to be rendered as myth.

There is something to be said for embracing the moment of life, and not trying to control it, or spend your time making lists of things to do. But, there is a tendency to go to sleep when you are caught up in the moment and you just let yourself go. I don’t necessarily mean sleep in a literal sense, but more of the sense of believing you will be well-received by others whom you meet along the way. That is where the rude wake up call comes, and where the disconnect with the inner self and the universe is most palpably felt.

The beauty of living in a world of words is that you become more immersed in the pure self of the writer–if you are the writer or you are reading an other writer. You don’t have facial tics and body language and poorly modulated voice to get in the way. When you are reading the mind of someone in a relaxed manner, and not simply reading their texts or emails, you start to feel as if you could be that person’s very close friend.

Meetings with such people, when they are prefaced by an extended period of reading thousands of their words, are usually met with sheer disappointment. The time you allowed yourself to get to know the person in their words is not permitted in a face-to-face meeting.

The person might not look as intelligent as you thought they’d be. They may have great difficulty communicating verbally, even if their writing is superb. You are ruining the chance at building a friendship, and they probably are as well. A few misguided words are tossed back and forth–maybe nerves bring out a latent demon or two the person thought they’d long since conquered, and the next thing you know, you are declaring this person (or they are declaring you) to be ignorant, stupid, sexist, racist, subhuman, etc.

People don’t think they need words anymore like they used to. “It’s too wordy, too flowery,” says every creative writing student when they are critiquing each other’s work. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to make it through any number of prefaces and introductions written in books published in the 1800s. Somehow, writers back then managed to create more paragraphs of words that literally could be condensed into a few short phrases.

Except, what these writers were often doing was taking their time to think something over carefully, and make sure that they’d considered their point from every angle. You attempt to nuance a point in such a way today, and you will inevitably get (especially from a younger person) “I get it, what you’re trying to say is, X = Y.” They don’t have time for parables as cautionary tales. They are the end recipients of centuries of Rationalist thinking–how do we distill all meaning into a series of mathematical symbols? But then, they find themselves in awe of life mysteries and believe themselves to be living epic lives that nobody else has lived, while having experiences that are at times trite or at least watered down from what a previous generation might have experienced.

If the world we live in eventually reaches a state of total war, where people everywhere are reduced to placing themselves in enclaves and tribal allegiances, and we are constantly at battle with one another, the reason for this total war will be that we thought we could achieve world peace more rapidly by enabling people to be capable of communicating with each other anywhere at any time in a face-to-face manner. When I can put on my Google Glass and talk to someone in Cambodia who is doing the same, and we have technology that immediately translates our words for us, we will stop thinking that we need to pause at all to way the consequences of any of our decisions. The value of reflection and contemplation will be completely lost, as will the value of letting an extended letter be crafted and read and considered at length before action is taken.

I have been in enough workplace meetings where rush decisions were made by everyone letting the most vocal and snappy thinker decide for the group what they were going to do, and then later going back to my desk and thinking through more carefully some of the consequences of doing such and such activity–usually to be ignored until the decisions were made and months later the consquences were experienced. Of course, the sharp retort is always, “well why didn’t you speak up in the meeting? If you couldn’t tell us what you were thinking then, then it doesn’t matter.” Except, not every “best choice for optimal outcome” can be completely articulated on the fly. Certainly, it’s easy to say sometimes that “we were faced with the need to make a decision immediately, and couldn’t wait any longer.” Except, that is usually due to a lot of self-imposed, arbitrary deadlines. The fact is, that unless a team has been handed a clear structure and process for working toward that best choice for optimal outcome, the end result is almost always one of the loudmouth ego in the room getting their way.

And then, the typical American managment style is to let the loudmouth ego fail as much as they like because “they are going places and are clearly the smartest person in the room.” Occasionally, the loudmouth ego gets something right, or pauses to listen to someone else in the room who might just happen to be the wisest person in the room, which the loudmouth ego is almost certainly not. Being the wisest person in the room is much more difficult, and that is not taught in any business school, nor is it a desirable person to be in most places.

At the macro level, I would argue that our civilization has achieved great things precisely because it has continued to reserve at least somewhat of an honored place for those who would take more time to think through what is happening, what is being decided and what the long-term implications are. In short, we still value in a limited way the elders of the tribe, the shamans who gaze much farther into the future and hold that much more of the oral history of the tribe in them. We don’t pay them as much, and we don’t typically make public our sense of reverence for these folks, but I would argue that most great leaders do spend a fair amount of time taking words of wisdom to heart when they aren’t playing the role of the loudmouth ego. And by great leaders, I mean those who actually do end up creating a proven track record in business, military or government–not the ones who are the simple ladder climbing, careerist types that move from C-level role to C-level role without ever actually showing that they were directly responsible for making a business profitable.

The illusion of doing good work is not as hard to perpetuate as you might think. In fact, if you are interested in becoming successful at a company, you should forget about actually doing any real work at all. The amount of time you spend preparing a presentation and your delivery of the presentation makes all the difference. If you are excellent at taking a failed project and finding the silver lining and turning that into a few bullet points of success and a graph that trends upward (even if the metrics are completely irrelEt to describing whether the original goals of the project were achieved), then you can thrive in just about any corporate or governmnet environment–and this includes non-profits at the leadership level, and I would hazard a guess the same goes for the military at the leadership/powerpoint level.

If you are so naive as to think that you need to be up front about what failed, then you will go nowhere. You only need to have an explanation for why the failure happened in you back pocket, in case someone asks, and be ready to immediately deflect attention away from it and put the blame on any number of circumstances and individuals aside from yourself. In that occasional instance where you do have to take the bullet of responsibility for mistakes made by your team, why, there’s nothing to worry about, because there will be a consultant job waiting for you where you can lay low at a firm and draw a paycheck for a few years before moving on to be the leader of another company.

To get back to what I was saying–there are those few, truly great leaders who may exhibit some of these characteristics as it comes with the territory and it’s part of playing the game, but the truly great ones can demonstrate at least one successful venture in their past.

Is Obama one of the truly great ones, or simply one of the “other kind,” who played by the rules and got promoted because people saw potential and wanted to groom him and keep him on their short list for advancement? I don’t know his biography well enough to say, but I would imagine that he is highly overrated by his biggest fans, and highly underrated by his biggest detractors. I think if you looked at Obama’s career with a careful, measured eye, and you soberly examined his track record of what he’s actually done as a president, I think you’d find that he’s no better or worse than any of the last fifteen presidents.

The things that people exult JFK and Reagan for are probably for the most part myths, and more of the “he’s a great leader because he gave a great presentation” variety than of the “he actually did something that was highly successful and wouldn’t have otherwise happened without him” kind. But then, you could also find things that George W. Bush did in his presidency that are rarely mentioned, that likely have had signficiant impact for the betterment of humanity–and the same could be said for just about any other leader. When all sober, clearheaded measurement is made of the presidents, you’d probably find that almost all of them were most effective as mythmakers rather than resultsmakers.

Is that such a bad thing? you ask. I think that it is if every kid in America has abandoned the dreams of actually making something, doing something, working hard, and building something new–and traded those dreams for being a mythmaker, a celebrity, a personality, a leader who got there by successfully putting on endless dog and pony shows. At some point, we will become a nation full of nothing but myths, and we become like all other great civilizations that have come before us.

Is it such a bad thing to incorporate just a little myth into the legacy you are building for yourself?

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