If I could share only one image right now, one message to my fellow countrymen and women, it would be this: Come Together.
I don’t typically try to communicate a social or political message in my work. I primarily create art in pursuit of beauty. I let it transform my life and mind through the daily act of looking more intently. It has taught me to seek a deeper understanding of things, and how they relate to other things. It has put me in contact with and helped me to better articulate my core values. It has increased my capacity for empathy.
To some, this might sound like I’m being ignorant and naive, sheltering myself from reality by pretending life is beautiful and everything’s going to be okay. The reality is that this is a fight I choose every day, regardless of the outcome. This involves a death to self, a shedding, a letting go and trudging forward no matter what. Being angry is easy, but costly. This goes against human nature. It is work. Much of my youth was defined by feelings of dissatisfaction, despair and anger with the world around me. In many ways it sunk me.
Art and photography have taught me to look for beauty and light. Not to pretend the darkness doesn’t exist, but to not let it define me. To fight darkness by choosing light. It can be an exhausting road, but not nearly as exhausting as carrying around the burdens of anger and discontent.
My country is very divided. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become more divided, but in the wake of a very tumultuous election season those differences have been amplified. Intense emotions are being expressed in a variety of ways. People are thriving on drama at an unhealthy level. I can’t help but be impacted by these social and emotional factors. They affect the perceived connections and metaphors that come to mind as I examine my surroundings.
I’ve driven under this freeway stack every day on the way to work since my family relocated in June. I quickly noticed the obvious architectural features—the lines, forms, proportions, etc.—and how I might possibly organize them into a photographic composition some day. Although I enjoyed admiring these qualities, they weren’t quite enough to move me to pick up my camera.
In the final weeks leading up to the presidential election, the enmity had gotten out of control. I watched daily as many family members, friends, and acquaintances let loose on social media with self-serving rhetoric and vitriol, ripping the “other side” to shreds. Others were in shock or pleading for the insanity to stop.
About a week before Election Day, I was sitting under this overpass at a red light and just allowing my mind to process everything. With my artist brain ever running in the background, I was processing both the election climate and the visual stimuli currently before my eyes. It was then my attention shifted from the architecture to the small sign atop the hill between the two individual roads. Almost immediately a new connection became clear and I knew I had to make this image. I can’t think of a better metaphor, or prescription for what my country so desperately needs.
When I say “come together” you might make incorrect assumptions about what I mean. This is not a wishy-washy, kumbaya, pie in the sky hope for world peace. I do not mean we should compromise on our personal or community values. I do not mean we should stay silent against injustice. I do not mean we should stop fighting for what is right and good.
I do mean we should pick our battles. I do mean we should act and speak with compassion. I do mean we should quit slapping divisive labels on everything and vilifying anyone who doesn’t look or think like us. I do mean we should do more listening. Wrong or right, we could all try harder to understand each other and work together. There are, after all, wrong ways to be right.
We tend to think of our stances on issues as purely black and white; two sides of an argument facing off across a protest line, or two fighters going toe-to-toe. There is no forward movement there. We have to try and understand more than just our own point of view. We should be thinking more in terms of walking side-by-side in our discourse rather than always going head-to-head.
I’m not naive. There are times where you need to roll up your shirtsleeves, dig your feet in, stand your ground, and make your voice heard. But we are not doing well in discerning which issues call for this. We quickly label issues as black or white, good or evil, republican or democrat. This results in ignorance and gridlock. We cling to the old rhetoric, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.”
I reject this black and white thinking. That mindset only helps to further the greedy agenda of career politicians who profit and gain power from our division. They become more powerful the more fearful and ignorant we are. It pushes people to compromise their personal values for fear of their party losing power, thus inviting further corruption and manipulation. Nobody has to choose “the lesser of two evils”. These are all false dichotomies.
Coming together doesn’t mean you conform and become a placid doormat. It means you try to understand each other better. It means you become better informed rather than allow yourself to be manipulated by fear. When two people really get to know each other it breeds understanding. When you understand each other you start to care what happens to each other. When you care about each other it’s harder to be selfish and hateful. You can disagree and still be kind. You look out for each other. You learn to collaborate. You don’t have to compromise your own values to do that.
I’ve been called an idealist (often accompanied by eye-rolls or looks of disdain). That’s a banner I’m willing to carry. It means I’m not willing to accept “good enough” or “that’s just the way things are.” It’s not the same as blind optimism. I refuse to become cynical and jaded. It would be very easy for me, and indeed is sometimes quite tempting, to choose clever quips or sarcastic rhetoric to combat the negativity surrounding me. But I know that is a destructive path. I choose instead to create. I choose to put positive things out into the world. I choose to pursue light. I’ll leave you with these final words, spoken by men finer than myself:
“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
“Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.”