[Editor’s note: Every week, New York City’s own Andrew W.K. takes your life questions and sets you safely down the right path to a solution, a purpose, or — no surprise here — a party. Need his help? Just ask: AskAWK@villagevoice.com]
Dear Andrew W.K.,
What up, dude? Love your advice column, so I’m hoping you can help me here. I’m in college, and one of my classes has a big poster of that famous Leonardo da Vinci “Man” drawing with the naked dude in the circle with his arms out. I’m sure you’ve seen it.
Anyway, I realize it’s a famous piece of art, but I don’t particularly like this naked guy’s junk staring at me all day. It’s offensive and distracting for a classroom environment. It’s just not appropriate to have some naked dude up on a wall when I’m trying to learn.
I’m sure you see where I’m coming from, so my question is, how do I get it removed? Do I just tell my teacher that staring at a naked man all day is distracting and gross? Or do I just ask her to take it down? Or do I take it down when no one is looking and throw it away? Or do I try talking to the dean about it? Or do I just cover it with a sticker or something? I don’t really want to start trouble, I just don’t feel like looking at this guy’s junk anymore and I don’t feel like I should have to. Am I stupid?
Fed Up And Grossed Out
Dear Fed Up And Grossed Out,
You’re not stupid. And you certainly don’t have to look at it. You don’t even have to look at anything anywhere, ever. You could wear blinders or even full-on blind yourself surgically. Or you could start a campaign to try and eliminate that particular drawing and every other drawing you don’t like from the face of the earth. It would take a lot of work, and in the end you’d probably end up looking at, thinking about, and obsessing over the image you’re trying to get rid of more than ever before. Maybe eventually you could figure out a way to never see it, hear about it, or think about it again. Or maybe there’s another way…
It’s clear that certain images, even very valuable and historically significant masterworks of art, can be offensive to certain people. For every single thing that exists on earth, there’s probably a person who is specifically offended by that thing. We unfortunately build much of our identity around what we think we like, don’t like, love, hate, approve of, or are offended by. We consider it part of our individuality. In fact, upon deeper contemplation, it becomes clear that in most cases, our opinions really have very little to do with who we really are as human beings.
It’s also clear that certain negative life experiences have lasting effects that alter our ability to navigate the world free from their justifiably upsetting and ongoing impact. But most of us will agree that the ideal situation for anyone wishing to live a happy and meaningful life is to figure out a way to exist relatively free of offense, upset, and lasting trauma — or at least to find a way to perpetually rise above those painful circumstances when they do appear.
Perhaps rather than this da Vinci poster being an offensive eyesore, it’s an opportunity to challenge yourself and look at it in a way that will ultimately be rewarding and liberating. And if you still feel the exact same way and gain no further insight into your feelings after some pondering, then that’s OK, too. You should follow your instincts. But whenever things get us so upset that we want to eliminate them, it’s worth turning inward for a moment, and seeing if we can develop the patience to explore what might be going on underneath our emotions and what the whole experience really means beyond just being painful and upsetting.
Feelings and emotions are complicated and tend to flood over us quickly and powerfully. It takes a certain amount of willpower to pull back and look at our feelings from different angles, rather than just allowing our most immediate impulses to take over and control our actions.
The main idea here is that when we are faced with an irritating, mildly unpleasant, or even deeply upsetting circumstance in life, we can choose to look at the adversity we face as a personal attack on our values, which it very well may be. We can also look at it as a test, a challenge, an initiation, an opportunity to reach a higher level of being in ourselves, or a chance to build ourselves up, rather than to tear other things down.
All that being said, I completely respect your right to feel however you feel. I only humbly ask you to consider, with an open heart and open mind, the possibility that being offended is not an opportunity to take things away from the world, but an opportunity to add something to yourself.
Instead of trying to censor the world around us to protect our feelings from what we encounter, we should strive to build up an inner world of resilience and openness that allows us to experience and interact with as much of the world as possible, even if at times it hurts us, disappoints us, confuses us, offends us, or disagrees with us. We must not give up on ourselves, or give up on the world simply because it doesn’t always go the way we want it to.
There will always be things that can offend us. There will always be ways for us to associate otherwise innocent experiences with something sinister and disturbing. We can always find a way to connect the dots that lead us into darkness. We can always allow something to set off an avalanche of bad feelings because something is different from what we prefer. We will always have an endless number of ways to get our feelings hurt. Even the word “feeling” could eventually remind us of all our other bad memories and hurt feelings. Without discounting the very real and painful experiences we can encounter in life, we know that our ultimate goal is to be thoughtful and strong. And if we’re truly committed and determined enough, even our most upsetting life experiences can embolden our spirit and cause us to expand, not shrivel and escape into a non-feeling, non-experiencing state. Even though life will push our buttons and give us every reason to turn away from it, we must realize that deep down inside, turning away from the life is just letting the darkness win. The best way to triumph over hardship is to force ourselves back into the light.
So, instead of referring to the human reproductive organs as “junk,” try thinking of them as the miraculous means by which you were brought into existence. Instead of wanting to remove a poster that offends you, try removing the part of yourself that feels the need to censor things you don’t like. If we all went around eliminating the things we didn’t like about the world, pretty soon there wouldn’t be any world left. Being offended by something doesn’t impact that thing which offends us; that thing usually doesn’t even know or care if we don’t approve of it. Our offense only really impacts ourselves — our spirit, our character, and our ability to grow.
So, do whatever you really feel you should do here. But be warned, it’s a slippery slope. There will always be another poster or another experience or another idea that offends you. Look at yourself honestly. And think deeply. You can easily spend all your energy trying to take away what you don’t like about the world. Or you can devote your energy to adding more of what you love to the world. The choice is yours. Choose wisely. Life is short.
More:Ask Andrew W.K.