Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seasonal Shifts

It's the holiday season, so it only makes sense to talk about what's on everyone's mind: suffering.

I'll start with my own. There was a time when I worked a 40-or-more-hour-per-week, "part-time" job, which I loved. But it kept me away from my family and the money wasn't there. Leaving the job freed up time for both my family and my own writing, and I was able to feel selfish by writing for hours every day, and still spend time with my kids. But as any parent can confirm, no matter how much you give to your kids, it's never enough. They always want more and, wanting to make them happy, we do our best to give more. This meant sometimes not being able to write for long stretches, because I was giving my time to my family instead. But then my writing started to suffer, and I began to resent my family.

Welcome to the holiday mentality. And I'm not just talking about kids. Think about it. Every December, we hear about toy drives, food drives, pajama collections, fundraisers, donations for troops, the starving, the homeless, the cold and the orphaned. I'm not complaining that so many people exist in these horrible conditions. My gripe is that we only hear about them once a year.

I understand the logic that tapping into people's spirit of giving during the holidays will likely reap the most results. But like an election year, here's what I think happens: everyone gives until it hurts, feeling they are going to fix the ills of the world. But instead of hearing about how much their charity has helped, saved and cured, they just get solicitations from *other* needy charities and causes. And what they feel instead is a sense of thanklessness that morphs into resentment, and the certainty that their help didn't really help at all. So where’s the incentive to keep on giving?

The flaw in this thinking is, as I said, like that of an election year. A candidate comes out asking for our help, our money, our votes. He recognizes all the problems plaguing our country. He rallies us all together, with ideas of how these problems can be fixed. He says yes, we can make a difference. We get behind him, get excited, and feel the potential for real change. We send him our checks; we cast our votes.

And then we go back to our lives, and the “we” in our candidate’s solution is forgotten.

We help out once a year or, in the case of elections, once every four years, and then get mad when we step back and all the problems aren't solved. It's like going to work and giving it your all one day a year and expecting a huge bonus. It's like writing one great book in your twenties and expecting to live off the royalties for the rest of your life.

In short, it's unrealistic.

We cannot affect a sea change in any aspect of our lives unless we work at it every day. The suffering of those who are hungry, cold, orphaned and poor is a constant state of being. So why does our acknowledgment of it only last for one month a year?

Because it’s overwhelming. We all have our own problems to deal with. There is always someone worse off than us. And to wallow in the sorrows of others every day is depressing and emasculating. At least it seems that way when we only think about it once a year.

I’m an artist, so I know from suffering. To make a difference, you have to suffer every day for your cause. It’s not wallowing, it’s allowing the pain to fuel your passion. As a writer, writing every day is a necessity. But many days, it hurts. The blank page stares you down. It keeps you from doing other things that can feel more productive. It makes you dig into places you’d rather not go. But you do it anyway. You have to.

And after a while, something wonderful starts to happen: your writing gets better. The words flow more freely. The ideas take shape more fluently. The daily commitment to suffering begins to make a real difference.

This is how we need to approach the problems of the world. Not by giving once a year and then sitting back and waiting for change. Not by voting every four years and then expecting paradise. And not by giving all of our time to our children and leaving none for ourselves. We need to give daily—of our time, our wallets, our minds—toward improvement. Only by changing how we approach problems can we solve them.


Snowbrush said...

I found your words about writing to be especially interesting. We differ in that I never write everyday but only when I want to, and that I never hesitate to write about painful feelings because writing helps me get to the other side of them.

Christine Orchanian Adler said...

Interesting, Snowbrush. I used to do the same thing, but once I started forcing myself to write every day, I found I would get a daily 'kernel' of an idea (even when I had sat down with nothing specific to say), and my writing would flow from that. And the more I did it, the easier it became and the better my writing got. I guess it's like anything else--practice makes it easier and makes you better. I'm with you on writing through the tough stuff though!