“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” – Anne Frank
“In silence and movement you can show the reflection of people.” – Marcel Marceau
In what ways does art provide meaning to existence? How does it enhance the meaningless with which we grapple? I have been immersed in the work of existentialist thought (Yalom and May, to name a few) and have become intimate with the question: What does it mean to be human when living at the edge of existence? I dare say all of us are at the edge of that existence at any given moment even when the conditions may appear disguised by success, comforts, vanity, and exhausted by anxiety.
Artists are at the edge of existence and constantly grapple with the fine line between meaning and meaningless, having and releasing, letting go and letting be. Artists experience rates of anxiety that appear higher than others because they explore such emotions in their work. Artists may face the depths of the unknown in ways that are acceptable because only in art making can such experiences find voice, and express harmony or dissonance.
One antidote for anxiety could be curiosity in the face of conflict and the unknown. Recently, I have been developing some new curriculum regarding personal transformation during WW II through the arts and it focuses on the work of mime-artist, Marcel Marceau and Anne Frank. I have been struck by both their stories.
Marcel Marceau, formerly known as Marcel Mangel, created fake identity cards in order to avoid the German enforced labor draft. He ended up joining a ring for smuggling Jewish children out of France and into Switzerland. “I went disguised as a Boy Scout leader and took 24 Jewish kids, also in scout uniforms, through the forests to the border, where someone else would take them into Switzerland.” He did this journey three times and saved more than 70 children. His work in mime was an exploration of identity loss, the unacknowledged voice, the drama of silence, and the ways the physical form can create stories that touch the heart and incite the mind.
Anne Frank…What can I share of this young woman’s life that you may not already know? Would her full biography convince you of her talent? Anne Frank’s life serves as a symbol of bravery, writing in close quarters with her family who lived underground in Amsterdam during WWII. Without interaction from the outside world for two years, she went deep inside herself to find worlds of thoughts and emotions and she journaled about them. She left her and her future audience to question how we can live more deeply by being grateful and in touch with the beauty every moment could offer.
At the edge of existence, wherein the unknown is localized, there is great potential for risk and transformation. Like Marceau and Frank, once the individual accepts certain realities of existence (loneliness, misery, death) and decides to fall into the challenges of existence, then something else takes over. The intensity of potential, inner wisdom and the unknown, mixed with the spirit of the here-and-now, could be the alchemy which makes life worthy of living, even if that moment is fleeting.
I say this with compassion as many are held back from involving oneself in the challenges of life with a sense of curiosity, desire for risk, and openness for transformation. And, why? How come so many talented artists, for example, can’t write themselves into the narrative of their life?Although not an answer to the entirety of the topic, but a response to the question at best, is that anxiety is a restricted hand that grips into the central nervous system of pain. It tightens its hold, whispering requests of refrain, fear, and other worries that demoralize the human spirit. It can shed one of any hope or desire to soar well-beyond human belief.
Marceau and Frank are reminders of what it means to be human beyond imagination and should counter the ways anxiety constrict the soul. If not them, then who? Who in your life – artist or not – replaces the nagging finger tips, the sweaty palm, the passive fist?