On Tuesday, December 3, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture wrapped up a 10-week series of public conversations called 10 Questions: Centennial Edition. Every Tuesday evening for ten weeks, interdisciplinary experts have explored answers to some of life’s biggest questions, including “What is truth?,” “What is love?," and “What is community?”
Victoria Marks, professor of choreography, associate dean of academic affairs for the UCLA School of Art and Architecture, and moderator for the series, said, “Rather than leave with a set of answers, we've learned that for the most part, we have simply complicated our understanding of these topics. Hopefully through these conversations we've raised questions about our individual and collective responsibility, our ability to manage multiple viewpoints, and listen well without canceling one another out.”
The final discussion, “What matters?” may have been the most challenging. It featured Ali Behdad, professor of literature and director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at UCLA; Kristy Edmunds, artist, curator, and executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA; and Michael Eselun, chaplain for the Simms-Mann/UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. Here are ten things we learned along the way.
1. What matters is an intensely personal decision. Victoria Marks introduced the panelists, and then read Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day,” which ends with the oft-quoted line, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Michael Eselun asked the audience to think about what they’d want their epitaph to say, noting, “Those little bronze plaques are pretty small. There isn't room for many words. Which words will you choose that matter, that will capture the essence of an entire human life?”
2. What matters is a matter of perspective, and it changes over time. Ali Behdad talked about growing up in Iran in the ‘70s. As a teenager, his belief in freedom of expression, economic equality and social justice inspired him to join street demonstrations, many of which turned violent. When his worried parents prevented him from participating, he was angry, thinking that they didn’t care about things like liberty, equality and justice. He said, “In retrospect, I now appreciate that for them, safety mattered and that their admonitions were coming from a place of love, not cowardice.”
3. What matters isn’t one thing — it’s a plurality of things. Behdad said, “The extent to which we all come from different backgrounds and we have different histories, different things matter to each of us. So, for example, for my yoga teacher, what matters is love. For the rich clientele who take his classes at Equinox, what matters is fitness. To our chancellor, probably what matters is public education.” He referred to Isaiah Berlin’s definition of pluralism, “the recognition that human goals are many, none of them commensurable and in perpetual rivalry with one another.” When human values come into conflict, Behdad said, “It doesn't mean that one value is superior to the other one or that it is more true.”
4. What matters is that the bricks are straight. Eselun recalled reading a magazine interview with Rosalynn Carter, not long after she and Jimmy had moved out of the White House and back to Plains, Georgia. He said, “At the time of the interview, she was busily laying a brick pathway up to the front porch of their house. She marveled at the absurdity to realize that several months earlier she had been living in the White House, hosting state dinners, Camp David, peace accord, all of that, and now the most important thing in the world is that this brick is straight, and it's true.” When Eselun thinks about what matters, he said, “I come back to Rosalynn Carter, that the bricks are straight.” For him, that means focusing on what’s right in front of him, while also being mindful of larger global issues.
5. The moments that you take time to appreciate matter. As part of his work as an oncology chaplain, Eselun speaks to people who are dying from cancer. He spoke about a woman named Maryanne, who was ready to die even though her family wanted her to stay alive as long as possible. She told Eselun that if it were up to her, “I’d disconnect all these pumps and hoses. I'd ask my husband to get in bed with me right here and hold me, and look out the window of my hospital room, and say ‘Look at that leaf on that tree. Look at how it catches the sunlight. Look at how it wavers in the breeze. Isn't that beautiful?’” She called moments like that “God moments,” and described them as “moments in which not much happens at all, but a complete awareness of presence of this moment is enough.” She told him, “I'd like one more God moment.”
6. Even small things matter. Kristy Edmunds read a list of examples. It began, “The pottery bowl that someone once made, being asked to come outside and play before dinner, dinner, firelight and sparks in the smoke, being beloved to someone, the weather, the dog we named but weren't allowed to take home, a feather, a hat, a web, riding the blue bike with the banana seat successfully, a bath that fixed everything…”
7. Taking others into consideration matters. Edmunds’ family on her father’s side were migrant workers, and by age three or four, she was taught the right way to pick an apple, because she was expected to help at harvest time. She said, “The best way to pick an apple is not how many you get for the money, how many you can shove into a box and haul up to the landowner to get your cash for the day, although that's vital to your survival. It's that you make sure you carefully pick the apple so that it will blossom next year for the family that will come through and the migrant community that will need those trees.”
8. Connecting with people matters, whether it’s one on one or through art. Eselun talked about how, when he ran a nonprofit speakers bureau addressing homophobia, he felt that what really mattered weren’t the speeches, but the one-on-one conversations afterward. What he remembers most are the times when he was on his way to the parking garage after a speech, and a kid stopped him so they could talk.
Edmunds said that connections like that form a kind of bond, and that art does that, too. She said, “Art is made in the context of human heritage to generate a way to create neighborliness and kinship through that which is sublime, or to shake us awake to our lack of bond, that fuels towards aspects of justice, aspects of that depth of humanity, that obliteration of the gender inequity.”
9. Lots of things, even conflicting things, matter at the same time. Eselun talked about a time when he was visiting a patient on their deathbed, and then a few minutes later, got annoyed about a spot on his pants. He compared the complicated, simultaneous emotions a person experiences in a given moment to “a wall in Best Buy of a bunch of TV screens, each one tuned to a different show, a kazillion shows going on.” He said, “So I'm in this TV show where my pants matter and the cost to clean them matters, and I'm in a TV show where life and love in this moment is all that matters. Can I just hold my heart open large enough to contain all those shows and not use it as a weapon to beat myself up for not being focused on the right show in the right moment?”
10. Personal identity matters, but we “contain multitudes.” When an audience member asked if focusing on personal identity prevented people from connecting with others, Behdad quoted the Walt Whitman’s line, “I contain multitudes.” He said that while “there is this kind of identity politics that actually reduces your identity,” we all have many identities. He said, “I’m an English professor, but I’m also a father. I’m a yogi. I can give you a long list of the kind of things that I am.”
Eselun responded to the same question by sharing a moment when he felt like he lost his individual identity altogether. A former professional dancer, he danced in the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. There were so many dancers that there was no way any of them could be recognized individually. He remembers feeling like “a blip of nothing in this sea of humanity,” and said, “I didn't exist in that moment. I was a part of this big amorphous mass and it was divine.”
Top Image: A silhouette of a man looking up in a pink-hued night sky | Greg Rakozy / Unsplash