I remember the feeling I got when I looked at that fresh empty side. The possibility. The opportunity for me to put my pencil to nothingness and turn it into something all my own. Over the next half hour or so, my pencil and I created The Thunder Mammals, a team of mammalian super heroes who protected the Animal Kingdom from menaces within. Sure, I had made up my own characters by that point- tons, in fact -but that smack to the back of my head was the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how I looked everything.
I had a relationship to characters like Daffy Duck and Wile E. Coyote whom I would draw often and one as well with Super Kitty and Clay-Guy and others of my own cartoon pantheon, but the true difference between my attention on one group or the other was negligent. What my mother had taught me in that direct, swift way that defines her methods, was the power of ownership. Daffy was their idea. The Thunder Mammals was mine. Mine. And with that ownership comes a strengthened idea of individuality and, with that, strengthened creativity.
As my artistic relationship with Warner Bros. decreased dramatically and my own characters’ worlds grew into rich, enormous things, the lesson learned quickly spread into other facets of my life. What else was I pouring myself into that was not mine?
Suddenly, the world in which I had lived for over a decade appeared to be, for the most part, not my own. What did I feel about things that did not directly come from the opinions of my parents? What did I know about things that did not directly come from the books that other people had given me? I was nothing more than the receptacle for other people’s creations; a realization that allowed me to set forth on a quest to free myself from it.
In the coming years the word “why?” became my best friend. When I was told how to act, or what to think, or (a major theme in my Roman Catholic schooling and upbringing) what was right or wrong, I immediately rejected the answer and, if the question were one I had never heard before, asked myself how I felt about it; if my opinion was in line with the “me” I am always in the process of building.
I’m sure that a lot of people are reading this and going “Duh!”, but the more I do and the more people I see the more I am sure not enough people have actually received that smack in the head (metaphorically or otherwise) to get them to step outside of the socio-environmental boxes they were placed in. The reasoning behind this, I think, is a healthy blend of social conditioning, rationalization, and laziness (known also as an “addiction to easy”) – By the by, these three things are secret recipe for the perpetuation of a great many terrible, terrible events that have occurred throughout human history.
We often tend to congratulate ourselves too much, treating a mild victory as an overwhelming success. Certainly we should be proud of our accomplishments and congratulate ourselves for every good thing we do, but much like the teenage girl who treats the discovery of a pimple with a explosive emotional outpouring of someone who’d just lost a loved one , we tend to give our personal progress more weight than it deserves. I’m not saying that getting a tattoo or or boat aren’t steps toward becoming closer to the person you want to be, but so often do we glorify these surface things to the point of glazing over the deeper opportunities for embracing our individuality, sometimes to our detriment. This leads to people thinking things like, “Well, my hair is blue and this yacht is great, but why am I not totally happy and content?” The answer: go deeper.
The way it is.
When the strongest themes of one’s society mix with laziness and a heaping helping of rationalization what you get this is phrase “That’s just the way it is.” Basically, these six words, whether spoken aloud or kept within, are one of the most powerful forces blinding a person to their own creative potential, freedom, and individuality (these three things being the exact same thing, really). If you hate your job, why do you stay there? If you’re in an abusive relationship, why do you stay in it? “That’s just the way it is” is such a convenient answer. Not to mention its close friend, “You can’t have everything,” which, while technically true, allowing it too much pull is the equivalent of blowing off your own leg with a bazooka constructed of your mind’s self-defeat.
The truth is that these debilitating mantras are self-imposed prisons where the guard and prisoner are one. To act against them is to loosen their grip immediately. Search for a new job. Move out of the house of your significant other. Sure, these escapes offer varying levels of difficulty depending on the situation, but merely believing that such a shift is possible is a form of creative freedom.
Is it the way?
Okay. Great. We’ve got blue hair, a yacht, a new job, and are no longer being abused. That’s it, right? We have assumed our individuality and drawn our own life’s picture. All is well, right? RIGHT?
Ha, you wish. Believe it or not, this is still the surface. Physical, tangible things. Toys. Cars. Other people. Houses. Dogs. Jobs. Money. Important things, yes, but to reach the truth of your individual, creative self you must be willing to go deeper, to ask “why” to the very core of who you are.
Compared to this next part, the bad jobs and bad relationships are easy. No matter how we rationalize them, it’s obvious in our hearts that they are bad. When it comes to things like one’s religion or morality or philosophy, things that are sometimes so deeply ingrained in a person’s psyche that they seem as much a part of them as their genetic make-up, “That’s just the way it is” is a force so all-encompassing that it is simply “Correct.”
The African American side of my family comes from the deep south where certain things were a certain way for people of different races. Some of them today are distrustful of white people. I’d say something as simple as “I got an A on my Biology test today” and that would garner the response, “Aw, that’s great Trystin. Now don’t let those teachers try to put any of them white boys ahead of you even though they ain’t as smart as you.” Is this response coming from a place of utmost love and concern? Yes. Is it a dangerous bit of hate based on a generalized and (arguably) outdated assumption that is just as harmful to peaceful race relation as any teachers who might “put any of them white boys ahead of” me? Certainly. If my handful of relatives and others like them would consider the times and their own recent experiences instead of clinging to cultural-spun philosophy then maybe their tune would be different.
The product of a Catholic upbringing, my learned concept of right and wrong was a compilation of carefully selected and translated excerpts from the Bible, everyone’s favorite religious tome. Early on we learned things like “Stealing is bad” and “Killing is bad” and “Not going to church on Sundays bad”. Then as we matured, so did these excerpts increase to combat our newfound urges: “Sex before marriage is bad”, “Adultery is bad”, “Homosexuality is bad”. To many, too many, the words of this book are the be all end all of the core of who they are. These people are so deeply Catholic or Baptist or Jewish that their unique self (them as “Sarah” or “Rachel” or “Greg”) comes second.
To truly reach one’s full potential one must fully look into their own morality. They must first look at the whole and then tear it down piece by piece. The latter is where laziness can come in, too. People love their quick fixes and when they can get the answers to all their tough questions in a simplified single place, be it a bible or a political party, they hold on tight and then concentrate on that new car they’ve had their eye on. This stuff takes work!
Looking at the bible holistically we see the usual excerpts, but also some really odd and disturbing things like men sleeping with their daughters without the least bit of negative connotation and Jesus himself condoning slavery (in quotes that were used in the American South to support their pro-slavery views). And then, once the whole picture has been put together, go ahead and see it as a number of pieces, not one single lesson that you can be for or against. Just because you think killing is wrong does not mean you need to think missing church on Sunday is, too. Pre-made view sets are not YOUR view sets. The same goes for your parents’ morals and our little two-partied system. Pick and choose what you feel is honestly right for you and, if in the end your moral code seems an awful lot like the one you left behind… Fine! Great! When I drew a picture on that poster board one of the Thunder Mammals was a platypus and looked an awful lot like Daffy Duck…but he wasn’t. He was a conclusion I reached on my own based on a desire to create from within myself. And as I thought holistically and my worldview expanded from the resulting questions, that platypus (and just about everything else) changed as well.
I’ll have you know he looks nothing like Daffy today…except for, you know, having a beak.