The Cult of Irreligion

“Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20

The propagation of the species is the best thing that materialistic Darwinian atheism can offer as a purpose for human life and all life in general. “Purpose” isn’t even the right word. There is no intent, no design to living things. It’s all just a happy accident.

The scary thing is watching atheism admit this, even revel in it. To do so, the atheist must bury their head in the sand in so far as a desire for a higher purpose is concerned. Human beings innately desire purpose. It’s hard-wired into what we are. That’s what makes religion so popular and it’s what makes atheism so uncomfortable, by admission as we will see shortly.

Today, the internet was given a window into what may go on in the mind of the atheist as they grapple with this discomfort.

This is very disturbing. Not just the video itself but how well it has been received. As I watched this, a lot of questions came to mind. I wondered how many of the assertions in the video I would be able to confront and how many I’ll have to think about. I wondered how well members of my generation would be able to respond to this video, particularly my fellow Christians. I thought of various arguments for and against faith and higher purpose.

My conclusion was that this is very bad. I’ll aim to be concise but I hope I can still defend competently how this philosophy is garbage.

1. The Very Premise

My thoughts kept coming back to the contradiction of the title. “Optimistic Nihilism.” How is such a thing possible? What are you looking on the bright side of? Your life is without meaning, short, and you and all your works will be forgotten. Where is the room for optimism here?

What you have in this philosophy is a call for willful rejection of reality. Try not to think about the true nature of your life. Just focus on whatever makes you feel good.

This is not rational. This is not a pursuit of truth. What this is is the logical end of atheism.

“We don’t know any more about human existence than you do.”

Don’t think of this as any sort of a truth claim. We can’t know the truth and you can’t know the truth. Mutually assured epistemic destruction! We might as well just fabricate a worldview that solves some of the immanent problems we ourselves have just caused.

The very notion of an “Optimistic Nihilism” is incoherent and to maintain it requires a voluntary dismissal of the worldview it attempts to address. It’s functionally self-ignorant. However, this is consistent with atheistic worldview which, lacking any idea of divine revelation, doesn’t have a good reason to even speculate on the nature of the supernatural in the first place. You might as well keep your mouth and mind shut.

If you’re just an ape who evolved to find food and procreate, you might as well embrace the fact that nothing in nature compels you to do thoughtful philosophy.

2. Flagrant Dismissal of Religion

A previous Kurzgesagt video called for the replacement of the Gregorian calendar without any consideration to its history or origin. They rhetorically asked “What happened 2000 years ago that was so important anyway” without acknowledging even the claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. More willful ignorance.

In our video on Optimistic Nihilism we learn that religion’s main impetus is a desire to make life less “Scary and confusing.” This is disgusting. It is a reductionist misrepresentation, a deafness, and an insult to religious communities of the world and it makes no attempt to engage with what religious and spiritual people actually believe.

Lumping all the religions of the world into one category and trying to assign a common motive is lazy and thoughtless. Religious traditions vary greatly in their arguments from the accuracy of a historical claim, to the preservation of a certain text, or to personal spiritual experience. And they don’t all try to make life less “Scary and confusing.” Buddhism challenges the desire for comfort in the first place! The gods of the Abrahamic faiths are capable of passing some decidedly non-comforting judgements!

And what hypocrisy! What is this video trying to do other than comfort the poor souls who feel scared and confused in their atheism!

Now I do think the religions of the world do have one common impetus that this video lacks – a desire to take seriously the innately human desire for purpose rather than putting our fingers in our ears and humming loudly until we die.

To my fellow Christian readers, I would love to introduce the Argument from Desire which I learned from C. S. Lewis.

1. Humans beings have a desire for higher purpose in eternity (this is plainly evident in all human endeavor).
2. Natural desires are such that they can be satisfied (hunger by food, thirst by water, loneliness by companionship.)
3. Therefore, there must be some higher purpose in eternity (unless evolution just conveniently happened to misfire on this particular issue).

The very existence of religion and spiritual practice suggests that there is something that the happy nihilists would rather dismiss flippantly and without further discussion. That discussion must take place.

3. Where This Leads

Please reread this section from the video.

“You only get one shot at life which is scary but it also sets you free. If the universe ends in heat death, every humiliation you suffer in your life will be forgotten. Every mistake you made will not matter in the end. Every bad thing you did will be voided. If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what it’s purpose is.”

Let’s think about this for a moment. “It also sets you free.” From what!? What on earth are we free from! Death? The only thing this sets you free from is moral obligation! Where does this lead us? The video suggests that we use our freedom in the universe to make people happy and contribute to the establishment of an interstellar human empire, but what an arbitrarily chosen goal that is!

“Do the things that make you feel good. You get to decide whatever this means for you.”

Rape and kill! What if that’s what my answer was? Or everyone’s collectively? After all, my purpose is to propagate my DNA, right? So I would achieve my highest purpose in life through the broadest propagation of my DNA and the elimination of my reproductive rivals. Any civil authority that tried to stop me would not be acting consistently with the philosophy of Optimistic Nihilism. Anyone raped should take solace in the fact that they are succeeding as a reproductive agent and anyone killed should take solace in the fact that the gene pool will be better for the elimination of a weaker element.

Does the picture painted in the preceding paragraph fill you with disgust? Good! Do you know why? It sure has nothing to do with Optimistic Nihilism, I’ll tell you that much!

Also, notice “If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters.” The emphasis is all on the one experiencing. It’s your experience. As long as you don’t struggle with burdensome feelings of empathy or compassion, who cares what some other jerk experiences? It’s your life that matters. This isn’t eusociality, this is sociopathy.

You recognize that this picture of society is disgusting because you were made in God’s image and built to recognize objective right and wrong.

4. Sources and explanations (lack thereof)

Rejection of theism – undefended and indefensible.
Supposed origin of religion – undefended.
“This life might be it” – Might is not good enough, see Pascal’s Wager.
Constant undertone of agnosticism – undefended.
Purposelessness of universe – undefended and indefensible.
“Build some kind of utopia in the stars” – totally arbitrary

Assertion after assertion, no sources or explanations.

Optimistic Nihilism, everybody! An ideology that is incoherent in its very premise, demands that you ignore its foundational worldview, reduces and misrepresents its opponents, and wrapped up in some sentimentality not native to its worldview to distract you from its horrifying logically consistent end. Almost a million views, 140 thousand likes and counting. I weep for this generation.

Now there are a lot of things I’d like to say to wrap this up. I’d like to say that we desperately need to reintroduce sound philosophical training to our public schools, for example. But I’m gonna do something I haven’t done on this blog yet. I’m gonna end this post with an altar call.

Your life is not without purpose and your desire for purpose is not an accident. You were made in the image of God (that is in the likeness of his character and attributes: moral judgement, rationality, creativity, authority, and much more) to glorify God and enjoy him forever. He has set eternity in your heart so that, through faith in him, you can have eternal life.

Don’t drown out your God-given search for meaning in youtube videos. Go to the cross of Christ.

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Life Lessons with Harold

I often find that the language I use to describe my world restricts the way I understand it. For example, “creative” and “academic” people are often dichotomized. I could never tell which one I was and I found this frustrating for quite some time before I realized that I was just both and there isn’t a word for that and that’s okay.

In this example and many others (especially in the realm of social-political controversy) we need to step back and think about the accuracy of the terms and models we use to interpret our world. I’m not trying to suggest that language is inadequate to convey meaning. That’s a slippery slope to start down. Rather, humans are fallible and we misuse perfectly apt things and sometimes need to rethink our actions.

So for many years now, I’ve used a certain analogy to describe how I live my life, particularly within the context of my Christian faith. I imagine life as like crossing a river on a foggy day. The river is wide and you can’t see more than a metre in front of you. Luckily, the river is shallow and there are rocks everywhere. So you jump forward and a new rock comes into your field of view.

You could try jumping further, into the fog, to speed up the process but you don’t know where those rocks are in the fog. There’s a very high chance you’d just get soaked. So you take small steps, one rock at a time, and gradually make your way across. The faith element being that this is how God leads people through life. He gives us just enough information to make our next move wisely and we don’t try to rush his plan.

The problem I encountered after graduating from university a year ago is that I couldn’t see the next rock. My thinking for the past year had been that God just wanted me to wait for a bit until the fog let up enough to reveal the next stone. Maybe there’s an alligator lurking around and he wants me to wait until it’s gone. Who knows.

And then as I began my second year after graduating I turned around and I couldn’t see the rock I had hopped from anymore! The fog hadn’t let up any. But clearly I was moving! I’d learned things, I’d done things – my life is clearly progressing but I’m not seeing any clear jumps forward just a gradual crawl-

Tortoise!

What do I mean by “tortoise”?

I mean my metaphor was all wrong. Or at least too narrow. The first part of my life may have been hopping from stone to stone but maybe there’s more to it than that. And, indeed, I look down to my feet and I see that the last stone I hopped to was no stone at all, but a surprisingly cooperative tortoise. My metaphor made me feel like my life wasn’t progressing this whole time but I’ve clearly accomplished things. Perhaps nothing dramatic but I know I’m not where I was a year ago. This turtle’s movin’. I’m going somewhere.

And if I transitioned from stones to tortoise, I very well my transition from tortoise to something else later on.

So now I’m at much greater peace than I was over the past year. Many of my peers transition from stones to fully-gassed pontoon boat right out of university but their mode of transportation may change later. For now, I will take the lesson on the limitations of how I interpret my life, and I will greatly appreciate the services of my proverbial tortoise friend. I think I’ll name him Harold. That sounds like a good name for a tortoise.

Patria

Canada Day has always filled me with conflicted feelings. I’ve never been much of a conformist and the popular trends and styles tend to elude me. While there are many things for which I’m grateful as a Canadian citizen, there are also many things I would desperately wish to change. Early on in my faith life, I was deeply affected by passages of scripture that say that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) and that the kingdom of heaven is not of this world (John 18:36.)

Given my nonconformity, critique of Canada, and Christian citizenship I haven’t quite yet figured out how I should engage with Canada Day. Because of this I often feel a disconnection from the world and a yearning to find a sense of belonging I haven’t found yet.

It was with this yearning that I was introduced to Anglo-Saxon poetry in university, often characterized by a literary motif called “Ubi Sunt”, Latin for “Where are they?” or “Where are those who were before us?” In this motif, the speaker in a poem will lament the loss of their home, kinsmen, or king. Two characteristic passages:

“Where has the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away,
slipped into nightfall as if it had never been.”
– The Wanderer (if this sounds familiar, you’ve read Lord of the Rings for which Tolkien adapted this passage)

“The days are lost,
And all the pomp of this earthly kingdom;
There are now neither kings nor emperors
Nor gold-givers as there once were,
when they did the greatest glorious deeds
And lived in most lordly fame.”
– The Seafarer

So you see the clear themes of loss and memory and yearning. I couldn’t not immediately fall in love with this the first time I saw it. I can’t not think of the Christian belief in heaven and the fall when I read the Anglo-Saxon poetry on fatherland and lost days. And in hearing this sentiment expressed, I felt a connection to the writer. I thought, “Here’s someone I could sit down and drink mead with.”

What I found in the poetry was something I never found in Canada. Having a better sense of the feeling, I began to notice that I also felt it in other circumstances. On the rare occasions that I find someone with a similar taste in music, I find a sense of brotherhood. When someone has played the same games as me or watched the same shows as me, moreover has engaged with them and interpreted them in the same ways that I do, I find a sense of brotherhood. Today I played Terraria for the first time in a few months and hearing the music made me feel rather at home. I actually find that sense of fatherland and brotherhood in a fair bit, but not enough that it becomes the backdrop of my life and thus the individual instances stand out. Half of my vocabulary are words that I’m sure most people don’t know. It’s not bragging if it’s lonely.

My fundamental problem is that I chose to be my own person instead of assimilating into the crowd. People sometimes don’t understand why I don’t dream of travelling. I’m always travelling. This entire country, its customs, and its people are so incredibly odd to me that I don’t seek novelty, I seek familiarity (which would itself be something of a novelty.) The music is weird, the prevailing ideology is weird, and the social mores are weird, and I’m always on the lookout for people who are as lost as I am.

So while tonight everyone is out launching fireworks (those vile noisy things) I will be inside reading about theology and poetry. Early Christians were criticized by the Roman state for being antisocial. I am perfectly content to follow their example. But there are a few things that that should never mean.

– It does not mean that I’m ungrateful in enjoying the freedoms this nation grants me.
– It does not mean that I’m ungrateful for our peace and stability.
– It does not mean I disengage from my community and ignore my neighbours’ needs.
– It does not mean I cave into the red underline on my screen and spell “neighbours” in the (wrong) American way just to spite my country.
– It does not mean that I don’t find ways to serve my community and make it a better place.

What it means is that I don’t belong to my nation. I just happen to be in it. My real nation is comprised of members of every nation.

And it is the custom of our people to try to make our communities better places to live.

“Jesus gave up his weekend for your sins.” (Or, How Memes Ruin Religious Dialogue)

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” – 1 Corinthians 1:18

We, the people of planet earth, disagree about many things and we spend a lot of our time trying to discover truth and to convince other people about a grand diversity of different subjects. I find this to be a rather noble quality of humanity but sometimes we do it poorly. We resort to methods and tactics that muddy discursive waters rather than clarify them and one of the worst examples of that is misrepresentation.

When we misrepresent an ideology, constructing a straw man of it, we can simply laugh at the misrepresentation without considering the potential merits of the real thing. Whether or not you agree with a position, I hope you at least agree that we ought not to misrepresent it.

To that end, I need to talk about one such misrepresentation of a position that has been floating around the internet lately that personally concerns me a great deal.

weekend

Haha, yes, laugh. Aren’t those Christians a bunch of backwards nutjobs? No. They aren’t. And whether or not you believe the gospel, you at least ought to understand what it is and what it isn’t. To that end, listen up.

1. The Incarnation

Before we address his death, let’s talk first about his life. Philippians 2:6-7 says that Jesus…

“Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

That word ‘grasped’ can be understood as ‘taken advantage of’ or ‘selfishly exploited.’ Before the cross we have the incarnation in which an omnipotent God lays aside all the exploits of his divinity and becomes a lowly man. That is a profound act of humility. Jesus didn’t surrender a mere weekend. He forfeited his divine status for several years so that he could be born where animals poop and wash people’s smelly feet. That’s more than you or I would give up.

2. Crucifixion

Now about the death. So, Jesus died peacefully in his sleep and woke up three days later right? Wrong. Excruciatingly wrong. Jesus’ death was not a clean injection or a quick shot to the head. It was hours and hours of arduous excruciating torture. The Romans had perfected the art of pain to such an extreme that our word for the worst pain imaginable comes from their practice of crucifixion – Excruciating. Ex Crucis. Out of the cross.

Nabeel Qureshi, a Christian apologist and M.D., explains the details of crucifixion in several of his talks available online. Here’s the first one I came across. There are others. You can find them yourself.

“Gave up his weekend.”

3. The Resurrection

Then we come to the matter of the resurrection and ascension. Yes, Jesus did not stay dead. Why this is a subject of mockery and not admiration is a mystery to me. But it does seem that in the end Jesus was no lesser for his sacrifice and thus it may seem odd to call it a sacrifice when it doesn’t seem to have diminished him.

Except that’s the whole point! He could take it!

The message of the Christian faith is that we have all turned away from God (Isa 53:6) and the punishment for doing so is death (Rom 6:23) but God himself paid that price (Gen 22:8, Isa 53 again). Without Christ, we would all die and stay dead. If Christ died but did not rise, then big whoop – people do that every day. But if an infinite God pays the price of death for us and overcomes death by rising from the grave, that might just get someone’s attention! That might just be a cause for hope!

1 Corinthians 15 teaches us that in Christ’s resurrection we can also have life after death. Yes, Jesus was, in the end, not diminished by his humiliation and torture. We should be grateful that he could overcome where we would have perished, not mock him for being stronger than death. And if he hadn’t paid our price (he didn’t have to, I remind you) we would be forever dead.

So Jesus did not “give up his weekend for your sins.” Jesus was willing to set aside his divine status to enter the world, suffer and be humiliated, be tortured and crucified, paying the price that we could not, so that through his resurrection all human kind could be free from the debt of death and have eternal life. The fact that he didn’t stay dead does not trivialize the cross, rather it should make it seem all the more wonderful that we don’t have to stay dead either.

One more note. Some versions of this image attribute the quote to Michael Shermer. I haven’t confirmed that he is the original source of this quote, but in case he is I want to say something brief about him. I am familiar with his work. I listen to his debates and lectures and I read his articles. He is not terribly bright. He is an irresponsible thinker who suggests that it is epistemically impossible to differentiate a deity from a sufficiently advanced alien (“Shermer’s Last Law”, which makes it impossible to have any reasonable discussion about the possible existence of God) and whose flagrant lack of understanding on the doctrine of the Trinity reduces his interpretation of the cross and atonement to “it’s barking mad” (which it would be if we were unitarians and not trinitarians, but that’s a matter for another time.)

In conclusion, I want to reiterate this issue of misrepresentation. I understand that an atheist may look at the language of ‘sacrifice’ and then look at the resurrection and have some questions. Unfortunately I don’t hear questions. I hear mockery. An effective refutation of Christianity will have to refute what Christianity is, not what it isn’t, and the cross is plainly far more significant than that Jesus just took a weekend off. To the detractors of Christianity: you will be able to offer a much better refutation of Christianity the more you study and understand it, and understand it from christian theologians, not just lay people or, worse yet, non-christians.

You may feel better about yourself for joking about the crucifixion but for those of us who are trying to have serious conversations you just look childish.

P.S. Let me suggest, as a Christian, some more fruitful topics of conversation: the transmission and preservation of the New Testament text, the problem of the unevangelized, and the feasibility of secular morality. I’ve also heard some interesting dialogues on whether an un-designed universe could produce creatures capable of reason so maybe there’s something in there for you to use.

Don’t “Sell Yourself”

Many of the artists I know are introverts and/or shy (and no, the two are not synonymous.) The irony is that the arts are a field in which one must often do extra work to make themselves heard. To cultivate an audience, one needs to call attention to their work. Performing artists like singers and actors have the added difficulty of not being able to just leave their work on an easel and walk away. Their product is inseparable from themselves and is to be seen by ideally as many people as possible.

So artists who are introverted and/or shy have to develop a set of skills diametrically opposite to their nature. Part of professionalism as an artist is being able to put that introversion or shyness aside for as long as it takes to advertise oneself or finish a performance. Many find doing so to be exhilarating and fun but eventually we have to come back down again.

Just as we don’t expect mechanics to always be fixing cars or professors to constantly be teaching literature, artists too are people. The secret is to know when to be on and when to be off. Sometimes you just have to be off. When I’m meeting new people for the first time I always try to make a good first impression but I only occasionally use my acting skills in doing so. Doing so would be exhausting and not entirely honest.

So when you’re stepping into a situation like that, you make a conscious choice and you choose to be okay with it afterwards. You may worry that you were received as being weird or awkward and maybe you were (not that that’s a problem) but part of professionalism is knowing the difference between your professional life and your personal life – the difference between what you do and who you are. I think most would agree with me in saying that the goal of life is not to get stuck doing the same thing all the time and loosing yourself in it.

If you’re in the habit of selling yourself, or if you’re learning how to sell yourself, here is my encouragement. Every now and then, don’t. Just be weird and shy and nervous. Your business as an artist will be business, but your personal relationships are between people, not businesses. Don’t lose yourself in your work, find yourself outside of it. In the end, it will actually make your art much better; your ability to apply criticism and handle rejection will be vastly improved.

Don’t sell yourself. Sell your product. Sell your skill. Sell your ability or brand. But you are you, not any one skill that you happen to have.

Nothing Under the Sun

All creatives I have known have run into the situation where they set out to do a project and then find that it has already been done before. Someone had the same idea and got there first. You’ve worked weeks or maybe months on something only to discover that it’s not as original as you imagined.

I personally find that this experience is sort of like the stages of grief. Not step for step identical but we still wrestle through reviewing the value of our work which tends to involve a lot of denial and bargaining. I try to come up with new justifications for my work. “Do I approach the subject matter from a different angle? Do I present it in a unique style? Can I add insights that this other person can’t? Can I do it better in general?”

The objective is to not scrap everything you’ve accomplished so far but giving up can be awfully tempting.

Sometimes you do find that different angle, unique style, insight, or means of improvement. Sometimes it’s obvious and easy to build on what has already been done. I think that’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is when you can’t rejustify your work to yourself and your standing there staring at your notebook, computer, canvas, or whatever and honestly can’t see anything in your own work that hasn’t already been accomplished. Then what?

The trash can is right there. You could just give up and move on but something in you is reluctant. Why? Because you’re doing this for yourself. You didn’t sit down in front of the canvas or word document just to have this or that impact on society. That may be a big part of it but you’re also doing it for yourself. You’re doing it because you were made to make things and have works to call your own. Who cares if it’s identical to something else? Let someone else be the judge of that. Chances are your perspective is too clouded to see something that would be obvious to an outside observer.

Throw that trash can in the trash can where it belongs and finish what you started. You will likely find a purpose to your work when it’s done that you couldn’t see before. If you can, forget the other thing exists.

Do the best you can, wrap it up, put a bow on it. To respect and finish your own work, in the spirit in which it began, is a gift you give yourself. And I guarantee that at least one other person in the world will be glad you did.

Demystifying Failure

I am not an overachiever. I do not have a long list of awards and accolades to my name. Throughout my highschool and university career, I largely coasted by on hard earned Bs and Cs. So I am not especially gifted or accomplished but I never failed a course. I never got fired from a job. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve been told that my performance is unacceptable.

Now, I know some people who have failed courses or dropped out of school altogether. I never know quite what to say to them because I treat their stories with my own deep fear of failure. I have long been terrified of what might happen if I were ever to fail at something. I would never have intentionally sabotaged myself but sometimes I wished that I had failed at least one course in my academic career, just so I could have known that life goes on after failure. I no longer express this feeling as it usually gets interpreted as ungrateful or as a ‘humble brag.’

I hear people in their thirties or older talking about their past failures in academics, jobs, or relationships and they’ll almost laugh at them. They’ll laugh at their past selves for having been so worried. They pass through this gauntlet of failure, this apparent rite of passage, and emerge not defeated but invulnerable.

By contrast I, standing before the gauntlet, imagined lots of potential outcomes. I imagined the disappointment of authorities and the oppressive weight of my own incompetence. Yet I see these more seasoned adults who think of their failures and don’t flinch. They don’t celebrate their failures but they’re at peace with them and are driven forward more by what is to be gained than what is to be lost.

Now I look back on the past year of my life and (to my error) compare it with those of my peers who graduated with me a year ago. I can’t say the year was wasted. I can point to intellectual, creative, and character growth. But the one thing I can’t stop thinking about is money. And now I am essentially broke.

This is my introduction to failure – financial failure. Profound monetary shortfall. Financial faceplant, waning wallet, budget blunder. And as I lay face-down in the mud, embarrassedly living off the understanding and generosity of others as I try to pick myself up, I think of these people who have failed and survived and my backwards retrospective wish to have failed a course. And as I lay in the proverbial mud, I note that I’m still breathing and people out there care about me.

The lesson I’m determined to learn from this is that failure is not an end. It may have consequences but it doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There’s more to a person than their performance.

Perhaps failure isn’t all it’s made up to be. Once I’ve picked myself up and dusted myself off I imagine I will join the ranks who look back on their failures confident in the knowledge that it wasn’t such a big deal.

Why It’s Important to be Able to Defend Why Things are Important

During university, I briefly participated in a community outreach program that went into the downtown of Hamilton and handed out hot chocolate to pedestrians near the mall, bus terminals, or soup trucks. The goal of the exercise was first and foremost to be nice but we also hoped to have conversations with the passers-by about faith and God. Or anything else really. I only participated a few times but a few of the experiences really stuck with me.

One time, the group I was with had struck up a conversation with some art students from another nearby university and the conversation turned towards faith. We asked them a few questions and I clearly remember one of the girls dismissively saying “Oh, I don’t know about that. We’re creatives, not intellectuals.” They then began to break off from the conversation.

I had no response at the time but even years later I am still unpacking that answer. It speaks to a profound difference between how we and they interpreted the importance of a topic and the responsibility of awareness. To them, religion belonged to the domain of the intellectual which was unimportant to artists. It did not have universal significance; I strongly believe it does.

Now I play the conversation over and over and try to puzzle through what I might have said instead of standing there silently while they slowly peeled away. How do I defend to a person that this subject is important? Or any subject, actually. How do I defend that my favourite books or poems are important? How do I defend that theatre or the evolving art of video games are important? How can I convince a person to rethink their priorities and responsibilities so as to take what I’m saying seriously?

I’m not sure it’s a battle one can always win. If someone is determined to only think about some things and never others then there is little you can do. I believe this may be, in part, a side effect of our information saturated culture. Every day we are presented with more information than we can possibly process so we learn to block out some competitors in the fight for our attention. At least, that’s what I do. I imagine others do. Perhaps we can encourage people to occasionally check their filter and make sure they haven’t ignored something crucial.

Ultimately, I don’t have a solution to offer. Not an assured one. But I have gained something valuable. In learning how to defend the importance of my interests to others, I have learned their importance myself. I don’t know how to make the dismissive art girls like my favourite books but I now know precisely why they are important and how they make me a better person. I better understand their worth myself and I can better apply that in my life.

Other things I have realized are, contrary to prior opinion, not important! I’ve been able to let go of things that really don’t matter or at least hold onto them more loosely. I’ve learned the limitations of some of the things I enjoy. Overall, in trying to learn how to make others review their priorities and responsibilities, I had do to the same myself.

I didn’t ever think to ask myself why I thought things were important. When I started asking, I found a new deeper understanding. I encourage you to try the same. Especially if you’re an art student in Hamilton because I need closure.

Goals

I graduated from university about a year ago, at which point I was presented with a crisis. The scripted part of my life was over. Everything up to that point was planned. From the moment I left my graduation ceremony, nothing was planned. There were no longer and pre-determined achievements to unlock. I had to set my own goals.

For the past year I have tried to set goals and for the past year I have come up with nothing. “Projects” is a related term used by my former writing and theatre peers. People have writing projects or acting projects. I can’t manage a clear vision of what to spend a single day doing, much less a “project”.

That isn’t to suggest I haven’t accomplished anything in the past year. Even in the past month I’ve learned recipes, done writing, done some language learning, met people, and become a part of a community theatre production among other things. I’ve been looking for work. When I look at the person I was a year ago, I know I’ve grown. I know I’m further ahead in life than I used to be. But I still have no clear vision of where this is all heading and I’m not sure I can say I have and “goals”. Just things I try to do a little of every day.

And then I remember the words of all the adults in my life who told me, as I approached my final year of university, that they were all winging it. That the adults I had always considered the most established if not accomplished in life were all just improvising and that the most successful are often more fortunate than in control.

Perhaps this is a part of what they meant. Maybe it’s normal to not know where we’re going in life or even if we’re able to steer at all. Maybe it’s normal to want your life to count but not know what that would look like. Maybe it’s normal to aspire to something great but not know what that something great is. Perhaps that’s just a normal frustration to face, especially in young adulthood.

So I don’t have goals or projects or visions for my future. I have individual days that I make the most of. And I’m sure some day I’ll look back and see how each day’s effort lead to something to be proud of. Until then, I’m improvising.

Unlearning (or “The Difficulties Presented for Aspiring Writers by the Present Conventions of the North American University System”)

For every one criticism I might level at my alma mater, I can say ten nice things. Among those criticisms are even things that are not the fault of the institution but of the larger system and my smaller university is to be praised for being flexible and making the best of an unperfectible system. Nonetheless, the system encourages some bad habit that have to be unlearned.

Word counts and page counts – we have all suffered them. I understand them to an extent. Students should be able to express a certain depth and breadth of knowledge on a given subject and two pages often doesn’t cut it. But what happens when you just don’t have that much to say on a topic?

Again, it is reasonable for educators to expect a certain depth and breadth of knowledge from their students. I am certainly not trying to suggest that I, the student, should get to set the bar on how much understanding is acceptable. But all students have unique learning styles. For everything my professors told me in class, there were ten things I wanted to go home and study independently. I wanted the big picture, to make all the connections. My professor makes a passing comment on Latin grammar, I go teach myself Latin. The problem then arises on exam day when I only have that one tenth understanding of the exact material being tested.

Papers presented a similar problem. I would be expected to write 2000 words on a topic and I could manage 500. I could write 50,000 on the given topic as related to others but the system asks me to focus. Which means that I (and many many other students) have had to learn the bad habit of finding the least efficient ways to express information. Clarity is not so important as how much space the sentence fills on the page.

This is a rather dreadful side effect of the system, especially for a student of writing. During the summer after graduating I worked at a Tim Horton’s as a baker. It was a busy location so efficiency was key. The problem was that I didn’t know how to be efficient. My coworkers would come in from the front and say “10 Boston Creams” whereas I would make my entrance and proclaim with theatrical perfection, “Lo and behold, dearest coworkers and brothers in arms against the ravenous tide of donutivorous itinerants! All but the lactose intolerant weep this night in Boston! Two less a score are needed.”

I exaggerate but you understand the principle.

My dad would tell anecdotes of putting out newspaper ads where you paid by the word. It is a helpful way of thinking about brevity in writing.

Belaboring the ratio, for every ten wonderful things I learned at university there is one that I have had to unlearn; the system is not perfect. I have learned grammar, style, and the proper use of the semicolon but brevity is a lesson for no sooner than today.

And getting there will involve a fair amount of unlearning.

 

An appending thought: Longer semesters would allow slower (read “broader”) learners like myself to cultivate the broad, deep, and focused understanding that the word counts are asking for, but this is perhaps an unrealistic suggestion. Better to self-correct one’s own bad habits and do the best possible within the system.