You think you’re alone …until art shows up.
That’s the whole point of it in the first place. If you’re an artist and you’re still trying to “entertain” people …you’re not yet an artist. Art isn’t pretentious. It isn’t a rich man’s word. And it’s not always about helping people escape. It’s just a mirror. That’s all. And real artists don’t just work in paint or notes or words or film or lenses. True artists work …in honesty. THAT is the most important thing required for an artist. Honesty.
I rarely fawn over episodic television. It’s my guilty pleasure and I try to keep it to myself. But this year a couple of shows have surfaced that have moved me in foundational ways. The first one I wrote about some weeks ago …Speechless. And it nails the comic and tragic aspects of dealing with special needs, day in and day out.
But the TV show that continues to wreck me week after week is …This Is Us, on NBC.
For those who haven’t seen it, I’ll be as vague as possible. It follows several different lives that all connect at a center point. And that center point is unlikely and unexpected. One of those lives is an adopted man named Randal.
Randal’s particular journey is complicated at best and he’s caught in several conundrums he will never fully simplify.
As the father of two adopted children, one having severe special needs and the other having all sorts of “issues” that are nearly impossible to diagnose, I struggle with the natural order of things, constantly. I read incessantly on “nature” vs “nurture” issues. My wife and I never quite know how to act when someone tells us one of our children looks just like us (especially when they say that about the oldest one …because she’s from China and TOTALLY looks like it).
But this TV show …this prime time soap opera …is connecting with adoptive parents in ways we cannot even express. The emotions and pain this man feels are the things we all hope our children don’t feel …but fear they do. And the fact that someone knows our secret and is putting it on the screen is resonating with millions of people. Definitely with me. That’s what art does. It resonates.
I’ll leave the details of the show to those who haven’t seen it yet. Do yourself a favor and make it part of your entertainment diet. It might actually be important. And I never say that about entertainment.
But in a larger sense, the dynamics of the show are metaphors for where and who we are Americans and where and who we are as a nation …
The beautiful, good-natured-yet-kind-of-dumb white boy has more opportunity than the rest of the characters. Mainly because we all just like to look at him. He’s the ideal. He’s uncomplicated on the surface and we treat him as the ubiquitous leading man. But he’s more complex and volatile than we want to believe. He’s trying to grow and exceed everyone’s expectations. And that’s harder to do than you think.
The obese woman (who is EXACLY his equal – literally) is in a constant state of struggle, fear and transformation. She never feels okay about who she is …even though she’s actually very okay. She has love standing right in front of her …but she refuses it because she doesn’t yet love herself. She has miles to go to achieve everything she’s been missing her entire life. And just by looking at it on the surface …we’re not sure she’ll ever get there.
And then there’s the adopted black man …a strong metaphor for race in the United States itself. He’s trapped in the center of two worlds colliding. He feels unwanted and rejected, no mater how successful he becomes or how much he’s told he is loved or how perfectly he lives his life. He cannot escape his own skin, even though the people closest to him call him brother and son …and they shower love on him as best they can. He is still a perpetual victim of ghosts of the past. And he will never be able to shake them completely. WE …will never be able to shake them completely. And no matter how we try …our good intentions can’t bind deep, deep wounds.
I believe the struggles of this moment in history are wrapped in the questions and paradoxes of the adoption of different races.
In the micro, there are constant elephants in the room when you have adopted children of ANY race. You can either address them early and give yourself a shot at a decent relationship with your adopted kids, or you can avoid them and give yourself NO shot at a relationship with your adopted kids, whatsoever.
Being adopted is a dichotomy. On one hand, you were rejected and unwanted. On the other hand, you were fought for and fiercely wanted. That internal reconciliation adopted children must always feel is the reason my wife and I stand in our kids’ rooms, on more nights than I can count, and watch them sleep and cry while we kiss their sleeping little heads until it’s almost embarrassing.
But there are also bigger elephants in the bigger room: why do you never see a black family with adopted white children? Why are there no Asian parents traveling to Scandanavian countries to adopt those orphans? Are white people, who adopt children of other races, doing it to simply assuage some kind of guilt? Should people of a certain race be adopted into families of the same race?
These are questions all of us who have adopted children of different races think about at some point. There is no escaping it. My Chinese daughter is just Bella, at my house. I don’t even really see her Asian features anymore. She’s simply my Sunday driving buddy who likes hard rock music and bad, animated movies. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit to occasionally wondering about her biological mother and father. And wondering about all of the circumstances that had to take place to produce a scenario where I could have enough disposable income to basically buy my way to her country and buy her out of it. I think about it more often than I probably want to admit.
One of my son’s best friends is also adopted. He is half white and half black, being raised by the white woman who adopted him. I often think about the system that led him to her home. And I wonder about the choices, compulsions, laws, stereotypes and socially acceptable (and unacceptable) notions that resulted in his particular journey.
As is the case with everything, we aren’t going to address these elephants effectively through politics or high-minded morality or marches or movements. We’re going to address them through our children. That’s how life evolves …through your kids.
And I, for one, am glad This Is Us is looking in the corner over there and saying, “hey guys …look …there’s an elephant. But he’s not as mean as you think and you can actually pet him. He won’t bite.”
That’s what art does. It helps with the elephants. And it makes me feel not so alone.