In March of last year, performance artist Marina Abramovic began a new piece in New York’s MOMA, called ‘The Artist is Present.’ For 6 days a week, 7 hours a day, she sat in a chair.
She sat in this chair and did nothing. A few feet away rested another chair, and people were invited to sit across from her. Some sat for just a few minutes, some sat for hours at a time, all just stared at Marina as she stared back at them. She did this for a total of 700 hours. I’ll tell you why this was important in a bit.
I’ve been a stress counselor/therapeutic body worker for eight years now. During that time I’ve heard incredible stories, sad stories and, frankly, some frightening stories. I talked with people who are decades into marriages with spouses they disdain and observed a father whose own Vietnam PTSD just recently bubbled to the surface when his son returned from Iraq. I’ve witnessed hundreds of body issues (migraines, sciatic, fibromyalgia, shingles and even partial paralysis) brought on by cheating on a loved one, remaining in an abusive relationship, working a stressful job, and even one kind man, at 78 years old, who still harbored the pain from an incident that occurred at age 14.
The most frustrating thing about what I do is the fact that so many people know something is wrong, but they remain unwilling to make the necessary changes to help themselves. Not all, of course, but easily the vast majority of them want a magic pill to make it all go away. They are more than happy to take anti-depressants, anti-anxiety and shots for every type of pain. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of those who need to take medication; however, the way we pass out prescription drugs in this country is ridiculous.
When one friend asked how this affected the success of my work, I said how shocked I was that Thoreau must have spent some time here because I was surrounded by those quiet lives of desperation that he spoke about.
My town is a small town; it’s a Wal-Mart town, fairly conservative and middle-to-lower class. It’s the type of town where they will rally to raise money for the local kid with cancer, but vote against a healthcare bill that would help all those other kids in all those other towns. We’re sympathetic toward our own, but apathetic toward everyone else.
I left when I was 17, the day after I graduated from High School, and promised myself I would never come back. Unfortunately, the things we say in our youth aren’t always the promises we keep as adults. I was doing hospice and therapy work when my Grandmother started to decline. I closed my business and moved back, spending the next 3 months providing her with the comfort touch from my training, ultimately assisting in a more peaceful end of life.
When she passed, with nowhere to go, I stayed and re-opened my business. I thought perhaps I could use what I knew to contribute to my city, and in the process help myself heal from the feelings I had toward my childhood home.
I discovered that generations of alcoholism and an abundance of hidden fears surrounded me at every turn. I’m not beating up on my town. I’ve lived in many places over the years, and my town could easily be called Anytown, USA. We have problems in this country that so many seem perfectly fine to pretend are not there.
And this brings me back to Marina Abramovic, the artist in New York. She sat in that room and as people sat across from her–over 1,500 in a span of 700 hours–an amazing thing happened.
Not all of them, but a lot of them. So many, in fact, there are websites devoted to this experiment. Articles were written about what happened, and one man is even making a movie about it. When asked why they cried, most responded by saying they felt like someone was actually seeing them.
We live in a country where we don’t see each other anymore. I’m not just talking about that homeless man on the street or that angry woman at work. We don’t see our significant other, our kids, or those we say we love. And because of this phenomenon, which is no longer a phenomenon in this country, I am stopping what I do.
In two weeks, I am closing my doors for good, and I am heading out to the next adventure. I know many kind people who are going to let me crash on a spare bed, or couch when I need it. I am aware that because of that fact alone, I am luckier than so many other people in this country who we continue to lose to the shadows of poverty.
I can do this because I don’t have a family that depends on me, or a mortgage I have to pay. I’m not tied down by debt. If I have any one fear, it would be the fear of the unknown. But what these last few years have made me realize, is that I have more fear in what is known.
Life is too short to fight for mediocrity. There are things to see and people to meet. This country is at a crossroads. We will either be ruled by corporate profit, guns and medication or compassion, virtues and a better value system over all. There are stories out there, and I think it’s time I told them.
And here’s the kicker: my biggest concern isn’t whether or not I will get a job, when I will have a home, or even if I will find a safe place to lay my head every night. My biggest fear in this country that likes to say, ‘Blessed by God’ and ‘The Greatest Country in the World,’ is if I should ever find myself at the mercy of strangers, my fellow Americans…will they even see me?
Vince is the author of Einstein’s Shutter, among other works.