During my undergrad, I, and many of my colleagues went through a strange and endless emotional plummet off of a cliff that collapsed into a rising sea-level but somehow resulted in a diploma. I was studying climate change in 2016. I remember truly questioning the state of my country when so little time was spent discussing this topic during the election. The day after Trump was elected, I was sitting in my meteorology class and my professor spent the entire lecture explaining the importance of voting, and the importance of scientific research.
Then I graduated. I couldn’t find a job. I wanted to be in grad school. I obsessed over the news. I didn’t want to paint, I didn’t want to do anything that would contribute to the enormous issue that seemed to be ignored by most of the world around me. But eventually I realized something. I love painting, I have always been an incredibly emotional and expressive creature, for better or for worse. I have a relentless requirement within me to create. I’d call it a passion but sometimes there is nothing passionate about it. It’s as much of a necessity for me as pumping the right amount of blood/oxygen/nutrients throughout my body to sustain my life force.
And before we get into the meat of this essay/rambling/article/diary entry/cry for help… I have to establish a few things….
I guess you could call me an existentialist. Now, as you mentally roll your eyes at the idea of a millennial, liberal, self-proclaimed existential artist, ask yourself, what does it mean for someone or something to be existential? It’s kind of a funny idea if you think about it.
The suffix implies that it is a quality which something holds. So, for example, something that is ‘residential’ suggests that it is intended for residents. Similarly, the prefix suggests we are referring to something which, simply put, exists. Without getting too Schroeder-y, if we assume that any *thing* that one could encounter or imagine, must, inherently exist, then what does it mean for that thing to hold the quality of existing? It’s a bit paradoxical if you ask me. And when I read the great fathers of existentialism, as it were, I didn’t feel the type of doom that a gloomy climate science graduate might expect. I felt, relieved. I felt incredibly free and for the first time since my studies I felt genuinely excited to start working on something and to develop ideas that could inspire change among my peers. It’s just not what I expected when I set out to read Sartre and Camus… it’s not what you expect when you hear someone proclaim they are enduring an “existential crisis” but I guess maybe that’s where the problem stems from- the word’s connection with the word crisis.
Anyway, I digress. So in the wake of graduating, feeling rejected, being jobless and unable to pursue my art I found solace in what I always imagined to be one of the darker life philosophies. In brief, what I learned is that, while having an existential crisis might be an alarming and highly uncomfortable experience, oftentimes it represents almost a quantum shift in an individual’s conscious mind or in their perspective on life. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe if it’s wholly and carefully executed.
But when it comes to holding a personal philosophy of existentialism… it’s even more exciting. From what I can gather (read: philosophy majors please don’t hurt me) living an existentially-oriented life means understanding that life has no inherent meaning, life is meaningless. [yeah okay I know that sounds intense but I think that’s where most people stop. The most important part of this idea is the second half…] …life, as a thing, does not possess any meaning by itself, but rather is a blank canvas upon which an individual constructs their own meaning. Now if this makes you feel a little lonely, keep reading. I would agree if you think that still, even with the second half of that idea, it doesn’t seem too optimistic (though that is not the goal here). But think about all of the people who have ever walked the face of this earth, who have been persecuted and treated with violence, taken advantage of, lied to, abused, wrongly accused, wronged in any way… who still chose to allow a transformation within themselves to occur, and instead of becoming the fear or violence that they were met with, brought forth kindness and beauty into the world. Those were all choices. The oppressor and the oppressed both had opportunities to engage in an action that was either the type of thing which contemporary humans have decided is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (within whatever societal context they lived in, because good and bad are.. well obviously relative to culture and time).
In existential thought, an individual becomes responsible, not morally, or in their respective social structure, but in their own… let’s call it “path.” Like a choose-your-own-adventure… the decision you make with problem X will led to outcome Y, but if instead you choose XX, then you are led to outcome YY.
So hoooooooowwwww does this relate to a depressed environmental student/aspiring artist????????????
Short answer: Turtles all the way down!
In wake of the massive epiphany of truth and awakening of consciousness, which your humble author was all too ill-equipped to handle, I started to paint. My ideas about how I wanted to leave a lasting impact that could harmonize with the idea of leaving a place in better shape than you found it… on a global scale, were not lost because I chose to choke plastic tubes of colored goo onto a piece of tautly stretched cotton fabric and pollute small amounts of water in a space which was permanently designated as an allowable mess. I could do both. But even if I couldn’t, this is our modern day Black Plague.
If you haven’t noticed by now I am somewhat excessive. To save you from an even longer digression, I will say this… with regard to climate change: though quite literally, an issue on an existential level, if it weren’t this, it would be something else. If this was 1352, it would be the plague, if it were 10,000 BC it might be a saber tooth tiger. Sure climate change was avoidable, in theory, but in practice… here we are. Should we all stop eating meat? It’s a good idea. Should we all halt every airborne travel plan we ever wanted to make? Yes but unlikely. Should we devote every ounce of our energy to making the world a healthier and better place? Definitely. Will those things happen? Absolutely not. Could the plague have been avoided? Yes, in theory… with antibiotics. In practice? Hadn’t been discovered. Should we not have created an entire global economic system that relies on the extraction, sale and burning of a finite substance which renders our entire planet potentially uninhabitable? Yeah, probably. But in practice… here we are.
If you’re still reading this… well bravo you’ve reached the climax. All of this to say… enjoy your life. Paint! Travel (within reason) do the things you feel called to do. This climate change stuff is scary and you should probably consider putting effort into reducing your carbon footprint… but this world is also full of divine intricacies far greater than I think any of us will ever be able to completely understand. And, like all things, you have to take life one step at a time. You don’t have to produce zero waste, become vegan, stop traveling, sell your car, live in a solar powered tent in the woods all at once. Well you can if you want to but small and steady changes are the ones that last.
I started painting, and a small piece of me died inside each time I would wash my brushes in the sink, pouring toxic chemicals into our water supply. I would throw giant pieces of plastic wrap away each time I bought a new canvas but over a relatively short period of time, my creative process started to reflect some of the wishes I had, to start making it a more sustainable practice. Buying second hand supplies, using those supplies as economically as possible, taking care of my tools… eventually building my own stretcher bars, mixing my own paints, using nontraditional materials and mediums.
So maybe your painting is cars or computers or video games or beer! Do it! Do the hell out of it! But just consider what you can do to make it a thing that we can continue to do. Because grounding all planes and outlawing cars is not going to happen, as helpful as it would be for our carbon crisis. So we have to find a way to make better solutions for the things that exist. It might take adjusting our way of thinking about quite a few things (like convenience and comfort) but it’s possible. And it’s necessary. So yeah, there will probably be a few existential crises along the way… but from my experience, I can highly recommend it.
All images by E. Wendt
Elaine Wendt © All rights reserved. 2019.