How do we become who we are? What experiences mold our character and how do those experiences alter the way we interact with artwork? For me the experiences that have been the most transformative happened suddenly: one I saw coming for nine months, the other I didn’t see coming at all. Both occurred within a 24-hour window and it took months to redevelop a sense of stability. I tell people I grew up in the summer of 2014, when what I mean is that I survived it. And in surviving I became someone new, with different agendas and altered priorities.
The difference between suffering and struggling can seem slight, but they are not synonyms though they both have something to do with the experience of trauma. One is subjected to suffering—usually without choice—whereas one must choose to struggle. Very often both experiences are triggered by an instance of trauma; suffering comes first and the brave struggle through it, or at least try to.
I couldn’t read after that fateful weekend for quite a while. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few sentences. So one day I went to look at pictures. I went to the Met with a plan to wander and I ended up in a state of near hysteria before a print of Laocoön and his sons being attacked by the twin serpents of an angry god. The agony on their faces, the mad desperation, and at the same time the fight they are putting up against these divinely coordinated creatures. It never occurred to me that part of Laocoön’s terror was to know his children would perish with him. Perhaps that is not something that occurs to a person who has not experienced parental love from the side of a parent. Nor had it occurred to me that Laocoön’s boys might have been terrified of the idea that their brothers were dying. But until one loses a brother can that thought even exist with any real weight? When a guard came over to ask if I was all right, I wanted to hug him. I’ve never felt that way towards authority figures. I didn’t realize how vulnerable I was.
I’ve always gone by the belief that one’s experience of art is solitary. Through sharing those solitary experiences a kind of community can develop that makes the isolation less lonely. I asked writers and artists to respond to the idea of how traumatic experiences alter the way we interact with art, and the responses I received were a potent medicine.
This month these pages are filled with the open hearts and sharp minds of many individuals for whom art has been restorative and rejuvenating. The notion of empathy arises often and the idea of trauma spreads out from the personal to the cultural. Creation is registered for the consolation it can bring and the act of looking, of steadying one’s mind on a work of art, is understood in terms of solace. I’m ever grateful to those who contributed to this issue. Together they’ve taught me an important lesson about grief, that one of the best antidotes is gratitude.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.