The world can be a weird, alien and sometimes even completely incomprehensible place for many of us. Most tackle this issue by learning about one part of it, and try to understand it enough so as to be able to operate in that niche competently enough to stay afloat.
These are the people that identify themselves as a certain kind of guy or gal; they might say: “I’m a fisherman.” or “I am a wine aficionado.” or “I’m a father and professional pianist.” The point is, we’re all something, and that something is the small scrap of real-estate, that we have conquered for ourselves, not only to propagate our life, but even define its scope — sometimes even its meaning and purpose.
But there are others, that sometimes decide the world is just too foreign of a place for them to functionally be a part of it; convoluted and distorted politics, fascist social movements and oppression of basic human rights (or at least rights, that are deemed to be basic by current system of beliefs) make our society a shadow that many choose to evade and, like Peter Pan, decide to dislocate themselves from it and move to wonderland — meaning they move off grid, live a hermit’s life and, detached from society, mind their own business.
But I’m not judging; each one of us needs to find their own place in the world, even if that place is in a way outside the “known” world of the 21st century — lacking wi-fi, 7-Elevens, running water and a sewage system.
And there are still other people that feel a connection, or even need to stay part of the system, but at the same time construct their own set of sub-rules, a kind of mini world in itself — the artists, adventurers, dreamers, visionaries and psychonauts — we tend to invent our own worlds, our own games, in order to still retain some form of control in this whirlwind of constant chaotic change and adapt not only to life, but mould life itself to fit our own needs.
The question I’d like to pose today therefore is: How does making your own rules, and sometimes even completely rejecting the already established ones, that our environment proposes, impact our perspective on life and place in society?
A wonderful quote of which the author eludes me even after 5 min of thorough Google searching goes like this: “Life is a game. You can be a player or a toy.”
This short two sentences more or less explain the whole idea of playing other people’s games versus making your own and letting others play yours — in the end, it’s all about control.
That’s why many decide to completely forgo society’s rules and customs and go live in a hammock — they retain full control. But that’s the easy way out; even though living in a tree with no running water (I’m exaggerating — off grid living is slowly becoming a luxurious lifestyle to be honest) doesn’t really seem like the easy path, people who do go off grid, consciously (or even subconsciously) decide to never again be burdened by the dominance hierarchies that rule our society and the social or physical (monetary) debt such hierarchies produce in their players.
And the best way to explore these hierarchies is through games:
In the most rudimentary form, games are an enactment of control. Like simple games of chance for example, where control is given up in order for our basic wants of being lead, not having to have everything figured out and leaving decision-making — the core quality that propagated us to the top of the food chain and the most brain intensive workout there is— to be made by “chance”, by a power outside of us, that we allow to take charge in a simulation of our life.
Other games challenge us to take charge of this control; the reason why some people love Monopoly and others hate it to death is because some love the power struggle and the hierarchy of dominance and subsidence that evolves around it. Dominance for them is a place where they feel at home. Others, well, they’d rather play Yahtzee or Uno.
The point is to not judge; we’re all different The real gist of today’s blunder is about why it might sometimes be better to stay inside the hierarchy and rather than invent our own the moment we encounter opposition. It might actually be better to take good care and a decent amount of effort and learn about all the various power plays and their rules, that are enacted around us every single day — especially for those of us that like to break every single one, the second we encounter them.
My reason of talking about this via the medium of games it that they just work so well. We humans like to play pretend, to simulate — in the end, that’s what thinking really is, playing pretend, so that we can simulate reality to either plan a move or just to amuse ourselves with banalities that have no place in “the real world”.
But while “pretending”, we are still enacting the same rules that govern reality — at least up to the point when unicorns and fairies come into play. And these reenactments, in the comfort and safety that such quasi real happenings provide, can quite easily be studied, so as to find the underlying rules and forces out of which they (and reality) are comprised.
Games are a transitory event that adults and children alike use to learn about reality, and more importantly, teach themselves how to behave in relation to it: We play chess to learn about thinking ahead and the causality of such behaviour. We play Telephone to witness first-hand the distortion of communication that naturally occurs in everyday life — albeit, usually we do it just to have a laugh.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the game of Telephone or Chinese whispers as it is called in some places, it’s where players whisper a phrase to their neighbours until the message reaches the last player in line, where it is then uttered to the whole group and compared to the initial phrase — usually completely different from the original.)
And we play Monopoly to learn about capital, and how it can be used to screw over people’s lives and/or build hotels, all while experiencing the fun and incredibly fantastic concepts of money, chance and venture capitalist dogs and sentient thimbles.
But, in order to play any game, we first have to learn its rules. That’s why tarot is so scarcely played and poker so popular — even though one could objectively say that the former is much more interesting as a gambling platform, because of the intricacies of its rules, and the interrelation of chance and skill required to win a game.
Fun fact: Tarot was first introduced in Europe in the mid-fifteenth century (allegedly in Italy, but who could really know?), but because of the sheer complexity of its rules, the game slowly became less about actually playing it, and more about telling interesting stories about the various connections that one could imagine about the cards that were in play.
This was what started the whole idea of predicting the future with tarot cards; royalty and aristocracy would pay tarot tellers to come to their card nights and tell wondrous tales about the cards that each player got dealt and slowly but surely, this story time evolved into a now still quite popular belief that tarot cards can predict the future. In reality, all it is is a reminiscence, a residue of a time, when people just weren’t smart or attentive enough to play the damn game.
On the other side you have games like Dungeons and Dragons, that are so incredibly complex and open in their rules (you do still have to learn them and there are a lot of guidelines to follow, so it isn’t exactly a “wing it” kind of a game to be honest) that preparations can take days, sometimes months of planing for each session and the duration of a session can last from a few hours to several days, sometimes much more!
But what happens when we play a game without knowing the rules or even if we just decide to forgo learning them in the first place?
Imagine playing chess without knowing how the piece moved; it might be fun for you — especially if you like to screw with people — but you opponent would most likely lose all enjoyment in the game, even become irritated by it.
The problem of such a free approach to any game is that, unless your opponents or the other team players (if such a game is played in a group) enjoy chaos and banal freedom, anyone apart from you — and even you at the end — will not enjoy the game.
Football isn’t basketball, and you just can’t touch the ball with your hands (the European variety that is), even though no natural rule states: “Thou shalt not touch rolling balls with thy bare hands, unless you are guarding a large box, in order to prevent the ball from entering said box and bringing shame to your people.”
Rules are there for a reason, even if the irony of that reason is that only by imposing a strict — but fair — set of rules, can playtime of any sort become enjoyable.
So, this brings us back to our core question: How does making your own rules, and sometimes even completely rejecting the already established ones our environment enforces upon us, impact our perspective on life and place in society?
Because all human society is a collection of various games — all with their own sets of rules and structures, that in order to join and become part of any group, need to be learned and embodied. If they are not, we are forbidden to play with the other players, or we’re just ignored and rejected from becoming part of their playtime in a passive way.
But we artists like to break these rules, we also like to learn a bunch of unrelated and, at first glance unconnected rule structures, because curiosity and the urge to understand ourselves and the life around us, compel us to.
And the problem isn’t so much in learning them, albeit it could really be proposed that in order to foster the urge to break any particular rule, one must first possess a broader understanding of the context in which that rule was created. Because, only then can we find discrepancies or even injustice in its structure that inevitably lead us to wishing to break them, and in the end doing so, because it’s in our nature to spot inequality a mile away.
Or you’re just a revolting anarchist, content with society crumbling down into the abyss that it came from, by the power of the same inconsequential cosmic fart that created it and its torments in the first place. Then, one could argue, you really don’t need any context or reason — nihilism is great like that.
So, the only way to be a functional member of society, is that we have to learn the rules that govern it. And the same goes for any one part of society; one has to first learn anatomy to be able to adequately draw the human figure — and no, cartoon anatomy doesn’t count, I’m talking about real muscles and real people, not exaggerated eyes and turnip shaped heads.
Rules, regardless of what system they are part of, are there for a reason. And as someone that enjoys little else more than “doing his own thing” I have learned to first observe, and do so intensively, attentively and especially for a long enough to be able to really discern not only the descriptions of rules that various systems are built upon, but their core reasons for existing.
It’s like getting a new job in a foreign company where you know no-one and are just floating in a sea of unintelligible hierarchies and relations between people. That’s your state the first day, and maybe the first week, but either through some kind college that tells you a bit about who is who and what their relationships are or (better) through your own observation, you can overtime begin to discern these structures and after learning about them, even become part of them.
But, were you to be completely ignorant about them, your chances of ever having a good time at work would diminish substantially. Same as the example of the chess player that doesn’t know how the various pieces of the game move, you would irritate people, create banal and most likely unintended conflicts between you and them only on the grounds of not knowing the rules.
But such hierarchies don’t only exist in job environments and games. They are present in our creative work too, albeit in a different packaging. When we paint, sculpt or take pictures, we are encountering hierarchical structures of life itself.
Let me explain this convolution, by saying: It’s never going to feel like you know what you’re doing (if you’re doing the right thing, that is), but that’s not the point.
Regardless of how proficient a writer, painter, or sculptor becomes, no matter how much knowledge they gather up over the years, it will probably never really feel enough. The feeling of having to, but not exactly knowing how to be just a bit better, will stay and gnaw on the soul forever.
And that’s fine.
Unlike monotonous and routine work like cleaning up or brushing ones teeth, creation always carries within itself a certain novelty. When we create — even if we’re doing the same thing over and over again — we always encounter something new. We encounter the chaos that lurks behind every single object, subject and phenomenon in the world. And especially those, that live inside of us and guide our behaviour.
But, be it a new challenge, a new and better way of blending colours or expressing ourselves with our words, or just a new move we can incorporate into our dance routine — creating means venturing into the unknown. We never really know exactly how we’re going to do it and how whatever we end up doing, will make us feel — sometimes even change our perspective on the world completely.
But to truly have a sustainable career in the arts (and a prosperous and adventurous life), we have to embrace this constant state of flux and push against the unknown, regardless of how we might feel about ourselves, our living arrangements, social and financial status or the weather.
Because when we do this everyday — when we build a routine set of self-imposed rules, that we decide will govern our behaviour — we grow not only our skill and our craft, but we grow as people. Everyday we stand the storm of self-critique and the feeling of resistance towards creation diminishes, bit by bit it becomes easier and easier to overcome.
This is the reason many of us create; even if we don’t think about why we do what we do, we feel this internal urge to have a go at it. And while most might just call this a need to create, it is about so much more than just the act of expressing oneself.
To create is to have control. The control over existence itself — albeit minuscule at first glance. To be able to mould cloth and pigment into a depiction of beauty is a miracle we all can bring into existence.
And with it, we bring a bit of peace and comfort — the feeling that we really know what we are doing and that it is our purpose to do so — even if in the grander scheme of things nothing really matters and all we have ever known and felt may just be a speck of dust on the canvas of the ineffable, we create purpose everyday.
At the same time, it might never feel like you really know exactly what you’re doing — regardless of how many rules and structures are created and followed, all of us will still end up lost along the way.
And that’s fine.
Because the answer can’t be found in any single day, any single creation or any single brush stroke or chisel for that matter. It lays in the totality of everything we do and why we do it.
And at the core, every art piece does one job, and it does it with incredible proficiency: painting by painting, sculpture by sculpture, a bit of darkness is lifted from the world so that yet another beam of light can shine onto us all.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
And to arrive at the why, we first need to build up a strong foundation of rules, that we have gathered from the various social games that are played all around us. For only those of us that build our foundation on a functional set of rules, are able to shape their Why into an intelligible-enough and substantial form, so that it can — as Nietzsche states — help us bear any how, that is any potential chaos that will inevitably arrive at our doorstep and knock on our “fixed conception of the world”.
It’s not a fixed world we are living in, but even though nothing is as it was yesterday, everything changes in subtle and mostly unforeseen ways, rules are there to guide us into a better future. All we have to do is to listen, look closely enough and embrace those that fit our view of the world.