How to Be an Authority without Being a Jerk

If you’re anything like me, then the idea of claiming to be an authority seems a little bit distasteful. Not just because of imposter syndrome – feeling like ‘who am I to claim to be an authority’, but also because authority is so closely linked to the word authoritarian – something I do not wish in any way to associate myself with. Nope, not me – I’m all about cooperation, sharing, and other bleeding heart stuff like that.

On a recent drive along I-80 in central Pennsylvania (I have some of my best thoughts while on the road), it occurred to me that my repulsion toward the word authority may be rooted in my interpretation of the word rather than what the word could potentially mean.

The concept of authority has become entangled with authoritarianism and top-down, hierarchical leadership styles that are slowly, but thankfully, becoming a relic of the past. We think of the word ‘authority’ to mean ‘I wrote the book. I’m special and better than (collective) you because I know it all – and anything you say to try and challenge me is just going to make you look like a fool.’

I see authority as an active process of envisioning and creating. It doesn’t mean that you wrote the book that sits on dusty shelves and nobody reads anymore but that you are actively and continually writing – creating – in response to an ever-changing world.

If you think you know everything you aren’t an authority; you’re a jerk and nobody cares about your impossible and improbable claims to know everything. The only way to establish authority while also building credibility and respect is to take creative risks, learn, renew perspectives, and repeat the process over and over again. Let’s rewrite the script on authority.

Intersubjective Madness

raven

The beautifully mysterious subjectivity of mental illness is too often lost in the noise of objective, authoritarian voices that dominate conversations about this form of non- or anti-convention. The creative space where we could potentially explore and negotiate what it means to be human and to be fully alive within the context of emotional difference is brutally shut down rather than lovingly opened up. And that is madness.

Le Pièce de Résistance

casserole

Recently, as I presented a casserole made for my grandmother out of a certain canned spare animal parts product, with love as only such a casserole could be made by a vegetarian, I sarcastically exclaimed, with my best French accent — which, according to my middle school French teacher, is pretty darn good — “here is my pièce de résistance!”

Too often, we fail to engage with life because we think our actions will not be consequential. Lack of impact becomes conflated with meaninglessness. We hold back, toiling away in private, until our unique pièce de résistance is ready for the big reveal.

Interestingly, great ideas emerge through immersion in the real world. We can try things out, get laughed at or ignored, and maybe even be appreciated. Regardless of the reaction, sharing our ideas and art with others even in preliminary stages can spark creative evolution. Creativity can also be developed by not taking ourselves and our work so seriously that we feel it is too privileged to be enjoyed by others.

So if you have not yet created or discovered your pièce de résistance, that thing for which you hope to be known and revered, fret not. Not only are you in good company, but that thing or things can be provoked through exploration, trial and error, and open reflection.

Creative Happiness

creativityI seem to only be truly happy when I am actively engaged in the process of creating something. Creativity gives my life focus and clarity, a goal around which I can organize my otherwise chaotic and sometimes self-destructive thoughts. In addition, creating something — whether it is tangible or intangible, permanent or temporary— brings with it a great deal of self-satisfaction, boosting both my self-efficacy and my sense of self-worth.

Creativity represents a healthy balance in-between two other extremes: restlessness and stagnation. Both restlessness and stagnation are linked to insecurity and detachment. I know when I am getting restless because I feel impatient, ungrateful, and agitated. Restlessness can lead to brooding, unthoughtful behavior, and sometimes devastating life consequences. When I start to stagnate, I feel bored, lazy, and hopeless; stagnation inevitably leads to psychic death. This is perhaps similar to the theory of bipolar disorder in which there are two extremes of mood: mania (restlessness) and depression (stagnation).

Creativity, then, is an outlet that brings together complex emotions in a positive, goal-oriented way. It bridges the novel brilliance of restlessness with the structure and stability of stagnation. When I feel restless, it is often because I want something new in my life; when I create, I make something new in my life. When I feel stagnant, I feel empty and as though my life is on hold; when I create, I initiate and sustain movement through which meaning and fulfillment emerge. Through the creative process, I am able to use and reconcile conflicting emotions in a complementary way that hopefully adds more beauty and peace to the world.

The Lonely Life of a Writer

writing

Writing is a solitary enterprise and that, overall, suits me just fine. After a day at work surrounded by other people, love them though I may, I long for some time alone where I can think, reflect, and just be without interruption or diversion.

To be a writer is to selflessly shed the blood of one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, along with otherwise underutilized charm and wit, only to, for the most part, suffer the subtle rejection of silence. It is to always be on the verge of the unknown, to throw out ideas and not to know where they may land.

Reading too is a solitary endeavor. Readers sit in blessed silence, submerging themselves into another world that opens them up — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally — and enlivens them. It makes their daily existence in the tangible material world even more meaningful as the two worlds become forever intertwined through the conscience of the reader.

But writing is also a conversation between writer and reader — and one in which the reader too often remains silent. Written text is a private conversation that takes place in a hidden world full of secrets that neither reader nor writer will ever fully visualize or understand. Each retains their own perception of the text and the vivid worlds they have created together remain distinct in many ways. The world of the author and reader too often do not connect in authentic or purposeful ways.

Readers unfortunately most often respond to the writer (at least to this writer) when they are in disagreement, when what has been written somehow violates the social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual, and/or emotional arrangements they have made for the world in which they live. Like when a reader responded to my kind offer to share a copy of Ashley and Tiana by writing a long-winded, scathing review in a way that only a bitter middle-age man could. The world I created did not in any way intersect with his — and in addition to that, I had the nerve to use an en dash instead of an em dash.

Several years ago, Public Enemy engaged their fans in the process of writing a song. While I chose not to participate at the time, and rap music historians thank me, I really appreciated both the intent of this project and the process that surely unfolded. But opening yourself up in such a way as an artist also brings a great deal of risk — especially of destroying the sacred pristine expression of all that is good and true to you. It takes a lot of courage to co-create with others, particularly when those others are able to self-select.

Yes, vanity likes on social media are nice, and validation of my ideas is also sincerely valued. It is heartwarming to know that there are other people in the world who notice, understand, and appreciate my perspective. But it seems shallow to not desire more, like provocation of life-changing self-realizations and inspiration of ideas that positively transform the world. Or maybe that is just selfish.

Hungry Muse, Naughty Muse

I yearn to create writing that is imaginative, playful, honest, and luscious — and to do so on a consistent basis. Writing is not only an emotional outlet, it is a reflection of who I am. It serves as documentation of the interconnected processes of self-exploration and transformation which I continually experience. It is an exhumation and selfless giving of the most special, sacred spaces in my heart. Writing is what makes me come alive, and in turn it gives life to ideas that hopefully inspire others in unique and meaningful ways.

At one time, I barely wrote anything for about four months. I was depleted, uninspired, and exhausted. My life felt heavy and stagnant. I was unable to produce anything of merit, anything worth sharing, anything worth reading. The less I wrote, the less I wrote. I was sucked into a downward repressive spiral from which emergence seemed more and more impossible. Was this it? Was there nothing more to say? Was I all but gone?

There was a lot going on my life at the time, and as a highly sensitive person I am often unable to filter out certain types of difficult experiences. I absorb them, ruminate, and internalize other people’s insecurities. Eventually my despair serves a purpose — connecting me with greater awareness and understanding, and illuminating new insights. This lengthy and difficult process is necessary for my spiritual awakening. But I could have been writing to help me make sense of those experiences along the way.

When I get stuck, it is usually because my naughty, naughty inner muse is assisting me in this self-sabotage. And like unruly children who are neglected and unfed, that naughtiness comes from a lack of attention and nurturance which renders her incapable of engaging in a creative relationship with me. When I feed my inner muse, she astonishes me with her support and tender loving care; In other words, I am better able to invoke passion and love through the written word when I take care of myself and indulge my desires — regardless of how often I stare at a blank piece of paper or screen. Because my writing is so deeply connected to, and a part of, me — I need to be well in order to write well.

There are certain special things I like to do to feed my inner muse, like immersing myself in sunshine, bubble baths, ocean waves, and spectacular music, eating ripe peaches at the height of summer, and traveling to previously unfamiliar places. Daily rituals, like meditation and physical movement, also fill her heart with joy. I can also approach every moment with openness, wonder, and curiosity and engage with the world as my playground, rather than a battlefield. Neglect her, leave her hungry, and naughty girl will once again emerge. At every moment, I need to treat her, my most wise and beautiful inner self, with lovingkindness so she, and my writing, may flourish.

Art for the Masses

pegasus

A few years ago, when visiting a major museum in the Mid-Atlantic area which shall remain unnamed, I was absolutely mortified when an employee — or perhaps it was a volunteer — handed me a device through which I was expected to listen to a narrative about the artwork I was about to view. I said to my mother who accompanied me at the time that it was like the scene in Amadeus when they perform the ballet without music. Art is meant to be personal and intimate; a group of people looking at the same piece but in their own little worlds listening to a streaming audio track in their headphones is practically sacrilegious.

Is this trend a feeble attempt to make art accessible to more people? A response to declining budgets and volunteer availability? A cruel social experiment intended to update what some people see as antiquated traditions with modern technology? Whatever it is, I refuse to take part in it. If the museum cannot or will not provide the service of a friendly and knowledgeable guide, I would rather engage with text than passively listen to some unknown, unseen, distant person speak. So hand me a pamphlet, or allow me to find the text that is typically installed as part of every exhibit on my own, and spare me the headphones. Or I shall do my own research instead.

My resistance to the integration of new technology at art museums is not in any way a hesitation to dismantle the old order. In fact, I was an early computer adopter, writing simple programs when my age was still in the single digits, and I value what technology brings to our lives. But when it creates a distraction, noise, and separation among people it is, in my opinion, no longer serving a useful purpose.

I may be a snob, but I am an inclusive snob. I believe that all people have the right to enjoy good and beautiful things by virtue of their human nature (of course some people vehemently deny and reject this right, and who am I to argue with them). If indeed the headphone thing is what needs to be done to engage people in the fine arts community…no, I can’t accept that as the best or only solution. There must be other ways to make the arts come alive for people, like small group discussions led by artists or complementary art forms like film. And what could possibly be more engaging than opportunities to create art right in, or adjacent to, a museum when visitors’ souls and imaginations have been stirred and stoked?

Yes, the way we preserve, view, and appreciate art can and should be modernized and made accessible to more people. But let’s do it in a creative and inspiring way.