Nothing matters (but winning).

Recently, a political reporter was giving an account of following the Trump campaign. The topic being discussed was the difficulty of reporting on the lies and falsehoods that candidate has espoused. “It’s not the fact-checking that’s difficult,” said the reporter, “it’s getting the facts to stick. Or as one of my colleagues describes it, battling the ‘nothing matters’ syndrome.” In an off-hand and wry comment, she defined the essential virus destroying our political discourse, our civic behavior, our public communication, and our ability to empathize. I will put a small spin on her observation. It’s not that nothing matters. It’s “nothing matters but winning.”

A still from a production of a play by Artaud

A still from a production of a play by Artaud

In my acting classes and with my ensemble I exhort artists to identify what matters to them, and then to become creative around that concern. Examine any great artist you like, and you will find that a feature of their greatness is that they had a personal stake in what they made. Their art represented issues and values that mattered to them. Even artists like Dali, Artaud and Tzara – who set out to make art which broke from narrative structures and conventions – made their anti-establishment art based on deeply held convictions. Identifying what matters doesn’t necessarily lead to “lecture art” – a kind of pedantic and irritating message-laden art which is more propaganda than creativity. Great comedies are born from what matters. Silliness and clowning is born from what matters. What matters isn’t the province of any race, gender or movement. We can all identify what matters. It may take some quiet time, but it’s there, underneath the autopilot of our busy lives, occasionally shocked into view by an atrocity. Identify that, and it will lead you to a family of matters.

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The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Salvador Dali

If you and I differ on a political or social position, you are much more likely to sway me if you tell me why your position matters to you . . . personally, deeply. I may not change my mind, but I will come to know you in a way that makes my snap judgments, defensiveness and insecurity decrease. Your willingness to share what matters will encourage me to tell you why my position matters to me, and ultimately the feeling of this human connection will become more important than right or wrong to both of us. You will cease to be an adversarial object to be vanquished, and instead be revealed as just another human being with things that matter. This human encounter is what we mean when we say “compromise” – a word currently out of favor in many quarters. This encounter is actually the foundation of all civilization. Without it, we are in The Game of Thrones (see – another example of our love for conquering, vanquishing, annihilating . . . winning.)

Tristan Tzara, by Pablo Picasso.

Tristan Tzara, by Pablo Picasso.

It’s important for me to admit how low I have gone. I see supporters of a candidate I do not support, and I do not see them as human beings. I do not. I see them as robots, as symbols, as jokes, as punchlines, as monsters. I have been encouraged to do so by a political process based on zero-sum dualism, in which there is only either/or, and never both/and. I have been encouraged to do so by a culture which fetishizes competition, in which there is always a single winner followed by a small army of losers. I have been encouraged to do so by those “on my side”, who are frantic to win, and convince me that we are right and they are wrong. In fact, those “on my side” have nearly committed fratricide in our deranged campaigns to be the One Who Represents Us – The Righteous Ones.

Either/Or. Win/Lose. Nothing else matters. Perhaps it was Charlie Sheen, in cocaine stupor and cigarette haze, who ushered in this point of view, when he took to YouTube in the midst of a binge in the 1990s and ranted about “winning.” He was a perfect representation of what we become when we are overtaken by the “nothing matters, win at all costs” mindset of our current culture: paranoid, delirious, narcissistic, grandiose.

And yet . . . so much matters. Which is perhaps why I am driven to this mindset at times. The stakes are so high. But isn’t the test of who I am measured in moments of crisis, at times of stress and consequence? It is exactly now that I am called upon to remind myself of what matters to me – that human connection, and the ability to empathize, be courageous, have faith, create something.

I will never encounter the candidate himself. But I might encounter a supporter of his. It is only when I can encounter a supporter of the candidate I despise and witness them as a human being, that I am part of the solution and not part of the problem. Which does not mean changing what matters to me. It only means hearing about what matters to you.