Finding meaning in crisis

In the past few days, we have found ourselves in a position of having to reevaluate who we are, what we believe and what we do. I cannot tell you just how many times I have heard people say that, in the context of the tragedy of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings, everything seems unimportant. I, too, have constantly thought the same thing, questioned why I do anything that I do, wondered why I attend classes or write papers or drink coffee or watch television or sleep or walk or anything. This week, I find myself in the unique and troubling position of having a commitment to produce the Record’s Arts section and feeling that there must be something else I should be doing. Often, though, we find ourselves turning to art as a source of solace; perhaps, then, art and discussions of it serve an important purpose in times of tragedy.

Last Friday, hundreds gathered on Baxter lawn for five minutes of silence and stillness. Simply seeing that many people gathered in support of those hurting was heart-warming. However, I had not felt ready to cry until I heard “Taps” played by a lone trumpet on Chapin steps. A string of notes connected those of us gathered on the lawn to all those who had been hurt and to the incredibly powerful symbolism of both the attack and of the rally of support surrounding us. As I see it, the primary characteristic separating “Taps” from any other string of notes is the humanity behind it; this particular combination of notes communicates “something” beyond the individual tones. I have heard this “something” best described as the “ineffable,” as that which cannot be touched or communicated but only felt and known through faith. (Thank you, Dean Murphy.) Because it is “ineffable,” I will not attempt to describe for you what this “something” is; I doubt that I could do it if I tried. Yet I think the effects of the existence of this “something” can and must be discussed, for they are what make art important in a time like this.

On one level, the “ineffable” element of art connects us to the world outside of ourselves. When I look at Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, I cannot help but feel the deep loneliness of the customers at the counter. When I listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing “Summertime,” it is only with concerted effort that I can keep from crying. For a moment, however brief, I feel connected to the artist in a way that can only be described as deep and enveloping. For a moment, I feel as if I understand and am intimately connected to another human being without ever having known them.

In appreciating art, we are connecting, not only with the artist, but also with the community of other people who have appreciated the work of art, before, with, and after we do. Some comfort lies in the vastness of the community into which we have entered, and also in the depth of this connection; it is all-encompassing and emotional, spanning across time and space. The power of artistic works like the Mural of Peace displayed in front of the First Congregational Church last week resides in the depth of the emotions they elicit and the breadth of the community affected by them. Everyone who contributed to the Mural put a little of themselves and of their emotions on display for the world, in hopes, I am guessing, that the world would somehow be touched. And I imagine that everyone who walked by the Mural felt the stirrings of sadness or pride or some other emotion, the evidence of the power of the “ineffable.” Each person who was touched by the Mural now belongs to a community of people who speak a common emotional language entered into simply by being touched. There is some comfort in that. And we desperately need comfort in times of tragedy such as this.

I have heard many express the hope that this power in art could somehow keep people from killing one another, that maybe art’s ability to extract such connections between people could keep tragedies like that which happened this week from happening. If a terrorist could somehow be exposed to the art of those he or she was planning on killing, then he or she might be so moved and feel so connected to his or her chosen victims that he or she would no longer be able to attack. Maybe. Just maybe. I am not qualified to judge. Here, I can only tell you how art has helped me and I think others to cope with the tragedy we have seen. Some comfort lies in art’s ability to pull people out of themselves and connect them to something and someone else. Art can help us to escape from our own thoughts and fears and hurts. It can also help us to connect to and understand the wounds of others.

Just as importantly, art can help us to understand and make sense of our own pain. For me, I do not think the reality of the situation, the gravity of what happened this week, really hit me until late in the week, after a couple days of trying to keep from feeling. Then, Friday afternoon, I felt unsettled and decided to drive through Vermont, listening to David Gray’s album White Ladder. In the middle of the song “This Year’s Love,” I wept. I have not cried that hard in months, maybe even years, and I still could not explain to you why I cried; the world just seemed inexpressibly sad. Some feelings we cannot express on our own; they are too big, too complicated for us to wrap our minds around. Through art, we can uncover that which we always knew existed in faith but could not express in any meaningful way. Art gives these feelings meaning and expression; our emotions come to fruition through the hand or voice or movements of another person, and we find comfort in finding that someone else has felt what we feel deeply enough to put forth the effort to express it.

Art connects us to ourselves when we do not know how and connects us to a community we did not know existed in a way we did not know was possible. When we need comfort, art provides a safety net, validating our emotions by setting them within a framework of broader experience. In times like this, when our lives have been unsettled and nothing makes sense, art can reinvest the world with meaning and security by providing a community of common experience and an expression for the inexpressible. When our entire world seems meaningless, art can help resurrect our feelings of significance, of hope and of importance, by reconnecting us with our deeply human selves.

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