We find inspiration in strange places, and at times we could not have predicted. Nora sent me an editorial from Saturday’s New York Times, written by Penn Jillette: an homage to his friend Bob Saget, who recently died at age 65. I wouldn’t have thought that an editorial written by half of a famous comedy-magic team, about another comedian whom most people know from a ’90s sitcom and a 90’s video-clip show, would have been so moving.
Jillette has always been known as the abrasive and transgressive half of Penn and Teller, the loud giant paired with Teller’s small and silent fall guy. And this editorial starts out as a praise of the abrasive and transgressive, but moves gently toward something generous.
Real art, beautiful art, is always a scary act of trust. We look to art to see another person’s heart. That human connection is all that matters. For me, it is a reason to live.
And then, after that elegant pronouncement, he reverses course on himself, and talks about the ways in which that connection can fail. Jillette’s own kids didn’t like Saget’s comedy, exactly because it felt disrespectful to them.
I have heard some thoughtful arguments against the transgressive comedy that I love. One problem is that it is often the same groups of people who are being asked to take the joke. I never heard Bob insult people who were marginalized, but other comedians do, and I don’t think that’s really fair. Even if everyone is equally fair game for comedy, our culture makes these jokes land unevenly. I see that. I don’t have the right to say to someone else: “It’s a joke. Get over it.”
And in the end, Jillette says that he hopes what he learns from his kids about respect can be balanced with what they might learn from him about trust.
Those of us in the arts may not have thought in precise terms about the occasional tension between respect and trust, but it’s there. And it’s there for a bunch of reasons.
It’s there because we are imperfect people, who think sometimes about untoward things, who reflect our own limited experiences and our own innate biases and our own unspeakable dreams.
It’s there because we cannot know every other person’s lived experience, and so may step on a trip wire that we didn’t know existed.
It’s there because our politics or our religions or our families or our ethnic ties may place us on opposite sides of some fence, both believing our own cultures to be “common sense” or taken for granted, no alternatives possible.
It’s there because the harder we try to be kind and generous, the more fully we recognize those moments where we’ve come short.
And it’s there because the things we care most about may just be boring, or irrelevant, or indifferent to lots of other people.
What Bob Saget practiced was emotional stage diving. He would fall face-first into the audience’s arms. If the audience didn’t trust him enough to catch him with their laughs, it would be worse than smashing onto a concrete floor.
When we write or paint or act or dance or whatever it is that we do, we do it for ourselves. We do it because we have something at our core that drives us to make, and then to share. I am going to show the world who I am, and I trust that someone will understand.
So, to pull a number from the air, let’s say I’m one person of a hundred who’s interested in writing about X. Whatever X is. And further, on the other side of the internet or bookstore, there are one person in a hundred who are interested in thinking about X. That means that an awful lot of people who might come into contact with my work won’t like it, and might even find it objectionable.
That’s fine. Set it aside and move along. But know that I’ve made it with respect (for both you and for me and for the work itself), and given it to you in the trust that you will take what’s meant for you and leave the rest for others. That you will, yourself, trust that there must be others who are receptive to this.
I have to write with respect, knowing all the while that the work occasionally won’t feel respectful to some reader or readers. But readers also have to begin from a place of trust, believing that a writer has done her or his best to be attentive and caring, and that errors might actually be errors.
Some years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in a session led by the poet Patricia Smith. During that session, she said (in paraphrase), Every writer has to be free to write about anything that they care about. But then they have the responsibility to stay involved in the conversation that their work has opened. That’s where trust and respect come together, in acknowledging that we’re all walking difficult landscapes as best we can. We can support one another and learn from one another, or we can knock one another down in our fear of injury or in our drive to victory.
And sometimes trust is unwarranted. As Penn Jillette also noted, Trolls don’t seek to demonstrate and celebrate trust; they strive to destroy it. The troll does not want to use offense as a tool to get to shared humanity. There is no bravery.
The more we hang around in troll culture, the more wary we become. Our trust muscle atrophies, our defensive reflexes grow strong. We are less willing to read with trust, because that trust has been so often violated by people of ill-will who intentionally work without respect, without care.
So, friends, make bravely. Write bravely. But also, read bravely. Read in a way that allows you to grow, to trust that the writer has worked from a place of respect. And if the work feels disrespectful or uncomfortable, trust that the writer can hear that if correction is offered from respect as well.
And if the work isn’t meant for you, if the work as a conduit between two hearts doesn’t flow, remember that the disconnect isn’t remotely surprising. It takes a long time to find work that matches our puzzle-shaped hearts. Treasure it when you find it, and set the rest aside with love, knowing that it might match someone else.