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I found Kevin Baker’s New York Times editorial of January 22 quite devastating, as it really captured the personal sense of loss I have felt these past two months. He argues that in our collective claim to a narrow idea of American exceptionalism made manifest in the recent election, we may have fundamentally destroyed the core of whatever exceptionalism America actually possesses. The real American exceptionalism is its pluralism, our respect for each other, our desire to do better for our fellow citizens and to see our individual differences as the true source of our American strength. Not talking about mental illness is emblematic of our failed exceptionalism. Talking about it might actually be the solution.
It feels as if the ground under our feet has shifted. Painted Brain remains a welcoming community of creative people that lives inside the larger, predominantly tolerant community of Los Angeles, in the state of California, land of permissiveness. Beyond that, I am not so sure at the moment. I have never felt more relieved and proud to be Californian (for the past 16 years anyway) than in recent weeks, watching our state lawyer-up for the coming shit-storm of federal impingement. But in all my morning fulminating, reading painful editorials on the current state of things, the idea of exceptionalism rebounded into a thought about exceptional people. We really are all unique snowflakes, and as dismissive and minimizing as that metaphor has become, it manages to captures the beautifully fragile differences among us humans quite well. The metaphor also suggests how easily we can get scooped up into undifferentiated, hardened masses.
In recent months, I have found myself questioning my thoughts and beliefs about the basic decency of our country and people. In this time, Painted Brain has become more of a personal refuge, a place to anchor my need to believe in the basic goodness of humans. This belief was bolstered for me at the Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles last weekend. People came together in love and defiance. It was incredibly affirming to be one of seven hundred thousand people respecting each other, an army of peaceful snowflakes. In our small way, the physical presence of Painted Brain’s community center replicates the peace and acceptance, the celebration of difference that was the Women’s March. We are all in this together. The beautiful feeling of our Monday community meetings is a rebuke to the current insanity, the American berserk. We will resist by sticking together in our differences.
I am more convinced than ever that our unwillingness, as humans, to talk about ourselves is at the core of our problems. I don’t mean self-aggrandizing platitudes, but talking about the things we fear and question in ourselves. We humans experience fear not just with the immediacy of the other animals, but with the added weight of needing to find meaning, purpose, connection, and a way to live even though we know we are going to die. Our avoidance of the difficulty and complexity of these fears can lead to easy solutions, like just hating someone else instead.
We fear mental illness because we can all relate to it. Empathy is our innate ability to feel what others feel. When we see someone in pain because of mental illness we can imagine what that person feels, and it’s uncomfortable and scary. We also all have personal experience with most symptoms of mental illness. Diagnosis depends on the duration and severity of symptoms, but the symptoms themselves are just a byproduct of being human. We all experience at least moments of utter hopelessness, or elation so intense that it’s scary, or imagining something and feeling it to be real, or worrying to the point of distraction, or feeling like nothing makes any sense. The human brain is incredibly complicated and barely understood. We experience things in our minds that we can’t control, we don’t know where they come from. The questions this brings up, just like those existential questions above, can fuel boundless curiosity if we chose to spend time with them. The opposite of curiosity is blame. Racism, sexism and homophobia, identification with a powerful leader, each reflect a deep lack of curiosity and offer an easy avoidance of ourselves.
These are exceptional times. The very idea of tolerance feels on the line. We need to find a common language as a people, a way to see each other as equals and equally deserving of respect and acceptance. Mental illness is universal among cultures and races and classes. Almost as universally, it is poorly understood and poorly dealt with. It is unifying in the sense that it makes everyone uncomfortable, no matter your tribe or creed. Talking about mental illness might seem insignificant considering our myriad challenges, but in these insane times, I stand with the insane. We have something to teach you.
by Dave Leon
The America We Lost When Trump Won by Kevin Baker
Everything is connected. We have something beautiful to build. One edifice in a city.