When we say we remember our lives, what we actually remember are the moments when new connections were formed in our mind. These are commonly called insights, and they happen when we can sew together two ideas that may have not seemed previously connected.
When I was growing up I had a lot of really wonderful friends. Despite the fact that they were wonderful, we can all carry ideas within us that are incompatible with our unification with the rest of the universe. Until these ideas are set down, they will continue to affect our behaviour.
As I write this I’m only in my 40’s, but even in my lifetime being gay has changed enormously. Look at video of Liberace. Even if he was telling the truth about not being gay, what’s notable was that even if he was, he wasn’t allowed to be publicly gay. And if he couldn’t be, obviously heartthrobs like Rock Hudson or Richard Chamberlain couldn’t be either, lest they disengage legions of swooning female fans.
Even far more than today’s unfortunate cases, people were routinely beaten and attacked for being gay. It was still too unknown. Gay culture hadn’t come out, so it was opaque to those who had no direct experience. And like most things people don’t understand, in most cases they’ll fear it. Fortunately in a few people the lack of understanding fills them with wonder and curiosity.
I myself knowingly encountered my first gay person when I was in my early teens. He mentioned his boyfriend and it caught me off guard. I asked him for clarification and he explained that he was attracted to men and not women. I found this fascinating and asked a lot of questions. Eventually I got around to sex but I was surprised when my friend said that he didn’t personally enjoy sex, so that wasn’t a big part of his relationship.
This was the key thing he told me, because I immediately thought of a few of my straight friends who also weren’t very motivated by sex. I knew they were seen as having healthy, loving marriages. So if a man and woman could be in love and not have sex, then it made sense that two people of the same gender would be capable of the same thing. That was when sex and love became two different notions for me. Unbeknownst to me, that awareness would later prove to be valuable.
Growing up one of my very dear friends was gay. This was fine with everyone, but a common friend we shared was blindly homophobic. I mean blindly because he never realized one of his best friends was actually in the group that he kept maligning. Fortunately my friend was too kind a person to ever be physical with his feelings, but he unknowingly said a lot of really horrible things in front of a person I knew he loved and cared about very much. He still is one of the kindest people I’ve ever known—he just didn’t understand. So we all kept quiet about the gay friend. But one friend did set his sights on changing the other friend’s point of view on the subject.
He worked on that project for year, and it wasn’t like he didn’t have help. He offered little observations, suggestions and floated questions here and there, hoping to lead our friend to a place where he could make room in his life for a bigger more inclusive idea of humanity. Despite us being extremely close and despite the fact that we all saw each other a lot, we appeared to have zero luck in moving that idea forward. And then came art.
I’d never thought much about art at that age. It wasn’t something that anyone I knew really did seriously, and so my only “art”was popular art—movies and books mostly, and I took in large amounts of both. But I never asked why the art existed, or what the intention of the creator might be, if indeed there even was one. But I now know there are lots of things I called art that were really nothing more than spectacle. And now I know that real art comes from a place. It has a reason.
It is spawned in an artist when an artist spots something in the universe that they routinely see others missing. So whether it’s a political cartoon, a book about a broken marriage, a sculpture that conveys the beauty of a mother’s love for her child, or a really good movie about zombies in a mall, the point is to convey something—even if that’s a question rather than a statement.
We ran into some art when my friends and I all went to see a movie. I won’t mention the title for a very specific reason that you would understand after you saw the film, but the important part is that it featured a homophobic character being forced to interact with a gay character. The homophobic character didn’t like that fact, but over time—as with any two people—they grow to know one another.
They grew to understand and appreciate each others perspectives—including the innocence of both being gay, and of being afraid of homosexuality. Eventually the characters meet in the middle, where it allowed them to love each other as friends, when the homophobe would have previously thought that impossible.
Now the interesting thing about fiction is that it’s essentially a behind-the-scenes look at other perspectives. Books are much more effective than movies at this because books allow you access to the personal interior thinking of other people, whereas movies cannot really do that in any significant way. Movies can imply the broad strokes of someone’s thinking, but it can’t intimately study the course of their thoughts like when we follow the trail of their internal thinking on a printed page.
This is why people who read a lot of fiction are often the healthiest non-spiritual people. Their knowledge of other very different perspectives allows them to accomplish very sophisticated introspections, thereby allowing them to forgive most behaviour due to their sincere understanding of its origins. They “get” what the Buddhist’s call causality. They understand that all behaviour has a basis—that it has origins that exist outside the person who is exhibiting the behaviour. They realize that there really is a logic to each psyche. Operate with this awareness long enough and you end up much less attached to your own personal programming and the universe expands in the space created by your open mind.
But our friend hadn’t read enough books and he had managed to hold on to his unfortunate views despite his dear and trusted friends efforts to change them for two solid years. The amazing thing was that a filmmaker accomplished the task in an hour and a half. When I saw that happen… that was the day I became a writer and filmmaker.
We walked out of the film and headed for some pizza. Except we were missing one friend. We couldn’t find the homophobe. I offered to run back to the theatre to see if he was looking for us outside or in the lobby. I found him looking a bit lost, staring out at the street.
“Hey, what are you doing? Everyone’s at the pizza place already.”
“They’re in love….”
“What? Who’s in love?”
“Gay people. They’re in love.”
“I thought they were just having sex.”
When he said it, it reminded me of that day with my first gay friend and how, at that age, I thought that what defined a relationship was that it was with the person you had sex with. So it made sense to me that my friend had made this accidental connection too. That being the case, he would feel like it would be one of the first things he would want to reconcile within himself: if it’s a relationship, how would sex work?
Of course, the truth is it’s just like straight sex. There’s no way it works. Sex is a unique communion between whoever is engaged in it. But again, the sex might overlap with people we love, but the sex is not the love nor is the love the sex, otherwise every 90 year old couple holding hands couldn’t really be in love.
That day I realized that art was about sharing, whether it’s a composer trying to convey true love with violins and cellos, a painter opening up her heart and painting the agony of her own broken home, or a filmmaker pointing out a misunderstanding that they either lived through or witnessed. To create art is to convey ideas that might include words, but those ideas—like love—are simply too enormous to be encapsulated in words alone. The larger spiritual lesson can only be captured by the whole of the story. The whole of the art.
If you’ve never read fiction, ask some people who know you well to recommend some. While it might feel daunting at first (I’m certainly a slow reader myself), and it might take a book or two to find an author you really enjoy—the simple fact is that if the art speaks to you, what you will find on the pages will be doorways to the greatest versions of yourself.
Art creates empathy, and empathy is connection. And once you are connected to enough, there are no more borders and only then are you truly free.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.