“For if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room.” –Rainer Maria Rilke
This past week, I was preparing to teach one of my college classes in which students read academic articles about culture and then respond by writing analytical essays. (Wow, that sounds boring.) Our particular focus is technology and social media, so we read an article about a rapper who made a music video expressing social commentary on the way black people are treated in America. The video, which is now a couple of years old, made a big splash and caused a lot of discussion on Twitter and other media outlets when it went viral. According to my students, the video shocked people awake to the kind of violence that exists in America. No one had made a video like that before, they said. And when I say “a video like that,” I’m referring to the fact that in the video, the musician shoots people with a gun and keeps dancing to his song, and then he shoots people again.
I told them that I didn’t understand why this was radical social commentary. A black man shooting people in a music video. In a culture that already has an implicit bias that black people are violent. How is this helping? I asked.
They argued with me. They said, You don’t get the video because your generation is not the audience. You don’t get the video because you didn’t watch the companion video with the breakdown of all the symbolism happening in the background. And most importantly, What you have to understand, Jana, is that this video got 6 million hits on YouTube, so it must be making a really valuable point. It must be working.
Six million views. Wow.
Then I showed them this video, which speaks to my soul, and which I can watch over and over again and be mesmerized. This video also has a black person dancing. There’s no violence. And it’s beautiful and healing.
They scoffed, because this video is “boring,” and it has less than 2,000 views.
To each her own, I guess.
But wait, let me tell you more.
A day after my class, I went on a nature retreat hosted by a friend of mine. There were four of us attending. We sat in a circle and we talked and performed a series of rituals in the night, and the next day, wandered through nature. We wrote down our fears and worries and the challenges we were facing and we held individual ceremonies about them. And no one watched this on YouTube. There was no video with 6 million views. No one discussed our exercises on Twitter.
And yet we four women are going to go forth now and heal the world.
What I want to say to the students I love, and what I’m going to invite them to do, is shut the screens of their laptops, and put their phones away, and go into the forest and dance.
I’m going to ask them, have you ever written a love letter to a tree, and nestled it in her boughs, and felt her speak back to you through the palms of your hands?
Have you ever picked a seed and let it leak orange on your fingertips?
Have you ever told a story around a fire, and listened to the birds caw, and sat with the silence that surrounds the crackling timbers?
You won’t be able to watch it on YouTube. It won’t make you any money.
But you will feel warm, and whole. And safe.
Are you brave enough to try something like that?