A Few Thoughts on Pain and Art

From a Gryt writing prompt;
“Your life is an amazing journey. What is the story you most want to tell?”

I want to tell everyone I won a Powerball lotto at age 19, got married at 28, and retired young to a quiet beachside cottage with a beautiful wife, 2.3 children, and all the other trappings of a successful, middle-class existence in America.

But that’s not a story you want to hear and, unfortunately for me, my life has been almost Stephen King-esque in how it unfolds. I did win the lottery, but of the nightmarish kind — I’ve survived three different brain tumors. I once did the math; there are probably 60 people like me diagnosed every year in the entire world. 24 of us are still around after that year. You really would have better odds of winning the lottery. As I approached the latest, deadliest tumor as a writer and artist instead of a scientist (after three failures, I figured it was time for a radical change in strategy), I learned something worth knowing. Something horrible. Art is the end-product of pain and strife. Happy, successful people don’t really have a story worth hearing, exhibit A is Glenn Frey or post-Beatles McCartney or Starr.

My formal education is in molecular biology and physiology, with an early interest in biology. I was never bothered by all the taxidermy animals in natural history museums, I always saw them simply as preserved specimens; whereas I know most normal people view them as some sort of grim testament to death and decay (or, to be more exact, the lack of decay). In the year I’ve been verbally and photographically documenting my struggle with cancer, I’ve come to view art museums the same way most people view natural history museums: as monuments to human suffering.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like art museums and the visual arts (and writing — especially writing), and I’m not saying all successful artists are troubled or deranged individuals. But I now know from experience that art worth seeing or experiencing is seldom made by happy, well-adjusted, financially-stable individuals. Imagine if the US hadn’t de-industrialized in the 60’s and 70’s; Springsteen might not be on stage now. Of course, that’s a counter-factual that assumes a lot, but my central point stands: art, like life, is about struggle and overcoming horror stories.

I’d still like to tell the story of leading a charmed life of ease and fortune, but right now, I’d settle for, “And he lived into his 40’s and didn’t die screaming and subsumed by pain and fear.” Life is perilous and unpredictable; you, dear reader, may have a cozy existence now, but there is some unimaginable tragedy out there with your name on it. Enjoy your story before you have a story worth hearing.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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