I don’t know about you, but sometimes, especially as of late, reading the news makes my head spin. It’s not necessarily because of it being sad or frustrating (although it often is). What makes my head spin is trying, through it all, to make sense of the vastness that is America — the vastness of realities and understandings that are all a part of what it is to be American — while also knowing that our lives are all somehow interconnected.
Both the vastness, and the interconnectedness, seem amplified by these times.
There are people in America quietly grieving and adjusting to unanticipated ends and absences. There are people whose vocations, in the last few months, have been transposed into forms that are frightening and uncertain. There are also people who believe that it’s all a hoax, and who can profoundly affect the lives of people they will never meet with the information they choose to spread and that which they choose to disregard.
There are people in our country who cry for the place that is their home to give credence to the value of their own lives, a place that is theirs but whose systems and history has for so long desecrated that value. There are others who cry with them, for they know and feel that so long as a nation violates the life of a single soul, it has no claim to its ideals of life and liberty. Yet there are also people who hear those cries and disregard them as the fault of erroneous statistical interpretations and historical misunderstandings.
As consumers, voters, workers, and members of communities, our lives and livelihoods, and the perspectives and beliefs that guide them, affect worlds and people invisible to us. So when we form opinions (which determine how we live, what we do) we must account for the vastness of experiences and reality for people who do not necessarily live in our worlds. At the same time, since what we do in our worlds and communities really does matter, we also, necessarily, have to understand the value of our own livelihoods and experiences.
Art informs us of these things in ways that simply reading the news and accumulating factual information cannot.
Art descends into the complexities of that vastness — into lives and circumstances and places beyond the walls of our own experiences — and returns to tell stories of what is contained inside. And what sets the stories of art apart from the stories told by the news or other sources of information is art’s adherence to beauty in the telling of those stories. Words with rhythm and elegance, sounds that reflect and listen, colors and shapes that wander and create, penetrate our souls with a specificity that makes the personal and the foreign, what is deeply understood and what is wholly unknown, collide.
In that moment of collision, the complexities and distances of that vastness are made personally meaningful to us. As we form opinions and choose how to live our lives, it is that personal understanding that informs us. It fills our own vocations and lives in our particular geographical, cultural, and intellectual circumstances with purpose and meaning. It is what prepares us to love more deeply and specifically as our communities grow and change.
It makes the vastness of America seem less like an incomprehensible thing that we, too often, feel like we are casualties of. Instead, it illuminates the vastness of America so we can see it as a dynamic, embryonic thing: the vision of which inspires us to curiosity instead of cynicism, and that knits our communities together, not just even, but especially, in times of hardship.