This is the second part of a mini-series on happiness. If you have not read the first part, you can find it here.
I would describe my relationship to art as… complicated. It has been a big part of my life for several years now, but how I see it and my own role as an artist has undergone some major changes over the course of my creative work. This very blog is actually evidence of that in itself. I created it in 2014, when I was 17 years old. I had started writing poems regularly just two years prior and I had even collected them in two poetry collections. Both were printed by my local print shop, about 20 copies each in total, which I mainly distributed among my friends and family (if you still have one of those, well, they are still worthless but fairly rare nonetheless). I started just thoughts because I wanted a place where I could regularly express myself. It started off as a very ambitious bilingual blog. I switched between English and German every week, and I mainly wrote commentary style posts about literature and social issues. As the years went by, a lot of changes occurred: I registered http://www.just-thoughts.net as a domain (at the beginning, the domain of this blog was vitovolpe.com, which was the pseudonym I used at the time), I was joined by my then classmate Sophie Modert as a co-author, and I started to abandon the commentary format and treated this blog more like a dumping ground for all sorts of poems and short stories I was working on at the time. Today, it seems to me like I sort of came full circle, in the sense that I focus more on columns again, but at the same time the blog has also matured with me. Today’s post is about my journey as an artist which in turn is also directly tied to my search for happiness.
Accepting marginalisation by becoming a poet
I was never part of the “popular kids” in secondary school. However, I was also not at the bottom of the barrel in terms of the social hierarchy as I was friends with some of the “popular kids”. Yes, from time to time I was made fun of for some of my stranger eccentricities, but compared to a lot of others I was in a very fortunate position. In Luxembourg you have to decide after your first year in secondary school whether you want to start learning English right away, or whether you want to study Latin, in which case English classes start a year later. I chose to study Latin and spent three years in a very interesting environment. I would say that we had some exceptionally intelligent people in our class. This lead to some brilliant joking around (believe me, we cracked all sorts of jokes: history jokes, math jokes, literature jokes…), but also to an almost frighteningly manipulative social order. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that social hierarchies in secondary schools are a big deal in general, but this class truly was something else. Having so many intelligent people going through puberty together ended up being very, very, very, very exhausting. I don’t think that anyone still holds any grudges today (at least I hope so), but I do believe that we would all agree that we were just so terribly inside of each other’s heads by the end of those three years that we really needed some time apart from each other.
In this group of people I became used to the role of what I would describe as the “accepted outsider”. Accepted because I was part of the main social group, and invited to all of the major events, but still an outsider on a subtle level. I didn’t mind this role, in fact I even actively contributed to this perception in some ways. Of course, I also dreamt of dating someone. I was still a teenager like everyone else around me. It was around this time that I experienced a very particular sort of unhappiness for the first time. My desire for dating someone clashed with the reality of the role I had created for myself. I remember feeling “incomplete” and, yes, I’ll say it: emasculated. In secondary school the fact of dating someone is used to put people in certain groups. Once you were labeled as “undatable” it was very difficult to get out of that group again. Looking back at it today, I almost find it absurdly similar to how royal families in Europe only married among themselves.
However, I also believe that the role of “accepted outsider” made it possible for me to become a poet at that age. For many people, declaring themselves a poet and distributing poetry collections in class would probably be a social death sentence in secondary school. But not for me. As an “accepted outsider” eccentricity was almost expected of me. When I openly started talking about my poetry, no one really cared or raised their eyebrows. This changed my situation slightly for the better because my label was now a different one. I was still an “accepted outsider”, but my label in people’s minds changed to “poet”. This change of labels marked my transition into a new period of my life.
When I look back at what I would describe as my “first phase” in terms of literary work, I notice something very distinct. My early poems are mainly about three topics: suffering, nature, and love. When you read these texts, it becomes very apparent that at that time I felt a strong alienation from the outside world. My sense of individuality was quite evolved, and I saw myself as almost a “victim” of unfavourable outside circumstances. However, with literature, something else came into my life as well: the power to create.
My perceived disconnect expressed itself in two ways in my artistic work. One was in describing the nature of my suffering. This meant that I was actually dealing with my feelings, and for a long time this was in fact very therapeutic. The other way was that I began to develop a tendency which would end up haunting me in the years to come: I began idolising.
Literature became my happy place. I constructed this alternate world while on the outside, I wanted to be seen as one of these mysterious authors I learned so much about at school. I started to become convinced that fulfilment could not possibly be found in this material world, and that it had to involve some kind of artistic transcendence. On a very subtle level, I would even go so far as to say that it was an attempt at becoming God: I deemed the search for happiness as too lowly a pursuit, and unachievable in a world such as ours anyway, and instead sought to create a perfect state of being.
When I look back at that time today, I notice that happiness was not even a major concern of mine most of the time. In fact, my life between the years of 2012 and 2015 seemed to know only one direction: upwards. As an individual, I also lived mostly without challenges at the time. I was still in secondary school, I enjoyed all of my classes without exception, especially since I had become a student of the literature classes, and I had a defined circle of friends. Being in secondary school also meant that I didn’t have to really plan for anything at that time. The main goal was set for me: Graduate from secondary school. All of these reasons as well as two others, lead me to define 2016 as a major turning point in my life.
The Moonlight Poet
Two major things happened in 2016 that I believe had a significant impact on my life. First, I graduated from secondary school. Coincidentally, this happened around the same time I published Mondscheinsonette, which is the very first of my books that was published as a print edition, ISBN number and all. This article is already almost obscenely long, so I see no need to go into the details of what happened exactly in my life between 2016 and 2019. However, what seems very clear to me today – and what I deem relevant for this particular post – is that during that time, and for the first time in my life, I experienced a full on attack on my individuality. Not through anyone else’s fault, but very much through my own making.
I just mentioned how I lived mostly without challenges in secondary school because the goal was set to me from the outside. After I left the school that had become like a home to me, I suddenly had to justify the decisions I was taking in my life. I was not used to this, and for a long time the only reaction I had was to ignore what was happening on the outside and inside to the best of my abilities. I ignored what was going wrong and hoped it would all just somehow disappear. The world, which I had previously deemed unworthy of my attention, suddenly demanded to be interacted with. Before, I had been on train tracks as a passenger. Now I was on a highway as the driver of my own car, and I was increasingly being pulled over by the police, who demanded explanations for my behaviour. What made all of this worse is that by that point, my tendency to idolise had taken over another domain of life.
This brings me to the other major defining thing that happened in 2016: Love. I mentioned before that love and I had always had a somewhat complicated relationship. Like most of us, my idea of love was conditioned by the media I was consuming. The media in question was, what else could it be, literature. My idea of love was, and to some extend it still is today, very “big” and absolute. I was never prone to falling in love easily, not even during my teenage years. I have never been interested in one night stands, or superficial flirting, or for that matter even porn. I know this will sound like bullsh*t to a lot of people, and you are of course free not to believe me, but I have never in my life watched a video of people having sex. It simply does not interest me. I have the same attitude towards strip clubs, and similar establishments: I am not morally opposed to them, and I do not shame people who are enjoying these services, but personally I simply have no interest whatsoever in visiting such places.
What made me fall in love with someone was the entirety of a person. Mostly how they spoke. How they came together in their existence, how their past moulded them, and what they wanted their future to be. I realise today that back then, I was probably more in love with the idea of someone than with the actual person. This was made worse by the fact that in 2016 I started idolising who I fell in love with. In that moment, my search for happiness changed gears. I gave up trying to create my version of a perfect and happy world in my artistic creations, and instead became convinced that happiness could only be found through the complete experience of this profound feeling which we call love. Fortunately, I have never been a person with violent or malevolent tendencies. What has defined me my whole life is a genuine wish to make others happy. The main damage from this sick perception of life was therefore directed towards myself.
Between 2016 and 2019, I made a lot of mistakes. It was not all bad, of course not and I would not claim that for a second. I am even able to come to terms with that time today. I do not regret any of it. I have always believed that things happen for a reason. Without the mistakes I made during that time period, I would not have been able to find the path I am currently on. So, how did I get out of my struggle? Again, two main reasons.
Planting a Seed
As long as I saw myself and the world around me as separate entities, I was trapped in a cycle of loneliness and suffering. What ended up helping me find my way out was an old reflex of mine: My thirst for knowledge. When I was at the lowest point of my life, a question began to grow in me. I started asking myself what the nature of suffering was. Billions of humans had been alive, and among them were so many great thinkers. I concluded that surely, someone would have found the answer to such a basic question by now. So I started actively looking into philosophies that dealt with suffering, which ultimately reignited my interest in Buddhism. Now, I am not trying to sell this to you as a cure for everything. This post is simply about me recounting my own life story. The Buddhist world view has helped me by not only giving me an intellectual framework, but most importantly by supplying me with a practical path to work with. Turning inwards, I started to analyse and work with my mind. I began to question rigid beliefs and habitual patterns that had build up over years. In a sense, my search for happiness ended when it was replaced by my search for truth.
The other fortunate circumstance that allowed me to overcome my personal challenges was that the person I had begun to idolise turned out to be an even better human being than I could have ever anticipated. You know that a person really cares about you when they do not give you what you want, but almost instinctively give you what you need. This particular person knew my good side, but was aware of my misconceptions at a time when I was still miles away from that realisation. They forced me to confront my grasping tendencies and had it not been for their genuine compassion and care, I would probably never have found the contentment that fills my life with peace today. I will never be able to thank that person enough, and I can only wish everyone of you reading this post that once in your lifetime, you will be able to meet such a beautiful human being.
The traveling Artist
As I said, I do not regret any part of my life. I feel like so far, every experience has served a distinct purpose, and for that matter, I am only at the beginning of a fascinating journey. My relationship to my artistic work has also changed. I do not feel any sort of pressure anymore. My art does not have to save me anymore, it does not have to do anything for anyone anymore. Instead, it has become part of my search for truth, and I believe that my next poetry collection, which I just finished writing two days ago, will be a good example of this new attitude.
If you have read the first part of this mini-series, then you may remember my allegory with the computer programme. My life experience was very much like that. However, when I began to really work with myself and especially my mind, it was like someone handed me a manual. Suddenly, there was this gap. A sigh of relief. Finally, I knew what I all these buttons were for. How different things happen when such and such conditions come together. And how I could properly use this programme to make the best of it.
Stay curious and keep looking. Believe in change and most importantly your own ability to change. Hope will save you in the end, I promise. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple choice. The Tibetan meditation master Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche put it like this:
“If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available”
– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
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