Assemble Your Own Belief System

Since my adolescence, I’ve never had a more than objective interest in religion. As a little kid, I trusted my Dad as I recited the Lord’s Prayer with him at night while he tucked me in. Back then, it was all the God Blesses wished upon my family members that felt the best. They were simple wishes of love, not complicated by old-sounding words that I sometimes couldn’t remember.

Back then, my baby-kid mind didn’t have any picture of God in it while I followed along with my Dad, saying “god bless Kim, and god bless Poppy” . It was just another way to say “please bless them and take care of them”. Back then, it was easy to ask an invisible, unknown authority for help. You were used to trusting and relying on someone bigger than you. Maybe as I looked at my Dad’s face while repeating the blessings, I was really asking him to protect everyone. It was him I trusted to protect us.

By about the age of eight or nine, I started appreciating some principles of science, and I was especially curious about dinosaurs and archaeology. Finding a box full of National Geographic magazines in my grandpa’s basement was like discovering buried treasure. I flipped through all those National Geographics with enthusiasm. I learned who Dr. Louis Leakey was and why the million year old skulls he dug up in Africa were important discoveries. I saw the colour, age, and vibrancy of distant cultures, and I learned about the shape of the world. I didn’t understand all the words in the articles, but they showed me a wide, strange world outside the bounds of my town. The world I lived in was just a tiny link in a chain of rises and falls that had happened over thousands of years, and as far as I’d seen, nothing in the modern world matched the wonders of ancient Egypt. It was scary and exciting to think that the physical world was such a vast, complicated, alien, and almost uncountably old place.

By my tweens, I regarded religious fervor and religious believers – especially those in my immediate family – with scepticism. To me, God and Jesus were unbelievable fantasies for others to adhere to, but they weren’t authentic for me. At that young age, I had very black and white thinking: I saw no difference between the incredible stories written in the Old Testament and the lying, hypocritical TV con artists who tried to evangelize ten dollars worth of prayer out of my auntie’s purses. I decided that I knew the difference between reality and fantasy, and I could smell BS pretty well.

I have one memory of attending Sunday School in Grade 3: I remember being confused by the blonde, short-haired, clean-shaven Jesus Christ in the religious storybooks we were given to read. Jesus looked like a Marine or one of the Beach Boys, not like a zealous, self-sacrificing Son of God. Even at eight, I knew that the image was a falsehood and a manipulation. Thank God one of the kids started eating the library paste and cracking us all up, otherwise, Sunday school would have had no redeeming moments at all.

My suspicion of that Beach-boy-Christ was definitely my dad’s religious cynicism seeping from my pores. My dad was his own leader, writing his own commandments for us kids to follow, with my mother as a generally-passive follower. Dad was stubborn and proud, and had no time for interference from any omnipotent, invisible organizations, or their earthbound representatives.

Nowadays, I tend to look at Christianity as an outsider, like how an anthropologist from one culturally-biased background might view a different civilization. I considered myself to be standing at the edge, observing from a distance, although truly, each of us stands squarely at the centre of our own biases.

Other Ways of Understanding Things

By eighteen, I understood some basics of physics, electronics, and radio, and had read a little about Sigmund Freud. I was becoming keenly aware of the disparity between the external world and my internal one. Externally, sunlight filtered through leaves on the trees outside my bedroom window, and RF radiation was all around me, resonating through everything and beaming out into space. Internally, my life was contradictory, and the adults I knew were mostly hypocritical and flawed. We each had muddled, conflicted, and complicated mental networks. Maybe they could be explored and untangled with time and care.

As I verged on adulthood, I anticipated the freedom and absolute responsibility I might face in the years ahead. Would I find someone to love me? I was sure it would be a girl, but would there be love? Would I find a career I would enjoy? I had no clear idea what I would do. I only knew I loved visual art and stories. Fantasy and escapism had practically saved my life, insulating me from the hard realities that faced me too early. Could life improve and would I be happy? Maybe I really wanted to escape and to take a chance, but I wasn’t quite ready.

Looking through the lens of science, I’d started to feel what might be the same wonder that I’d read theologians express when contemplating God’s creation. At the H.R. Macmillan Planetarium, I looked at a poster-sized photo showing a densely-packed field of glowing dots of light, and I learned each glowing dot was an entire galaxy. There were thousands of them in the ladge photo. That was amazing enough, but the real punchline was that the photo had been blown-up from a one square centimeter piece of film. The vastness of that scale just blew my mind. Outer space still fascinates me.

Years later, I read that St. Thomas Aquinas wondered “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”. Whether it was a sarcastic comment or a serious one, I’ve decided that even if science one day delivers an answer to dear old St. Thomas, the act of wondering at the vastness of the cosmos is not too dissimilar from musing on angel-pin occupancy in pursuit of almighty knowledge.

All of these disparate realms stimulated my curiosity. They made me wonder what mysteries were around the next corner and how much farther humans could go in the future.

Nothing to Tie it All Together

By about the age of nineteen, I began to realize that I saw no overarching framework to unify all the different kinds of information and values I’d gathered from my disparate sources. Nothing seemed to unite the physical world with the mental or spiritual worlds, and nothing brought the ideas of faith together with logic, or equated belief with common sense. All my little networks of facts and so-called truths seemed to be spoken in different languages, or measured using different scales.

In art school, the Foundation level of my art education helped me to begin integrating aspects of art, science, and perception. My first year of art college brought novel new unities between physics and perception. Initially, this blending started to emerge through my education in the experience of colour.

Hearing my art school instructors talk about the electromagnetic spectrum was the beginning of my understanding of the integration of art, science, and technology. Seeing how coloured lights mixed to create secondary colours (and even white light) helped me to connect the sensations of experiencing colour with the idea of the electromagnetic spectrum, wavelengths, and visual perception. The dogmatic divisions between art and science started feeling artificial, and it was a wonderful realisation – like discovering a grand unifying secret. The integration of new ideas gave back more than you realized: the whole was truly bigger than the sum of its parts.

Tendencies, Handed Down or Cultivated

The reason that I craved integration was likely because my world had always felt so fragmentary and disjointed. Life seemed rife with contradictions, and nobody really made it all make sense for me. My Dad, James, was a technically-minded man who never talked about subjective, interpretive experiences. Since we’d arrived in Vancouver in 1975, he’d been an Electronics Technician at the TRIUMF particle accelerator at UBC. Every day, he dealt with electricity, mechanics, and proven principles. He preferred ideas that seemed solid, immutable, and reliable, and he believed in math, logic, and common sense. He was the first person who told me about the law of conservation of energy (“energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed”). Whenever I badgered him to tell me about his day at work, he’d grudgingly talk about beam lines that move at the speed of light, gold targets that smash off new particles, ion streams, mesons, and a particle beam that would one day be used to kill cancer cells. It all sounded way cooler to me than he seemed to think it was. He worked with high-powered RF and electrical systems that supported the Cyclotron, TRIUMF’s world-class particle accelerator. To me, it sounded like stuff from one of my Fantastic Four comic books.

Dad spoke about Einstein with the same sense of appreciation that I have when I speak about Stephen Hawking, and with his occasional stories, he helped convince me that the world is smaller, larger, faster, and more dynamic than I could imagine. It was likely because of my father’s influence that I desired a scientific answer to every question.

In contrast, my Mother Angela was a creative person at heart, trained as a singer and musician, and in her twenties had been active on the amateur stage with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in her home town of Victoria. It always seemed like Angela’s best days happened before she met my Dad, back when she was singing, playing piano or violin, or drinking with her friends. She seemed like someone who was more “in the moment” than worried about the future. Put her in front of a piano, and she would come to life and burn up the room with some energetic boogie-woogie. Otherwise, she seemed silent, and maybe sad or bored most of the time.

The artistic streak ran through Angela from her father, Ernest (my namesake) whom we nicknamed Poppy. Poppy shot thousands of photographs of Angela throughout his life, and he painted landscapes in oils later on in his senior years. Angela was the apple of his eye, and his only child.

Nobody at home really talked about art, but at Poppy’s house it was around us in little, everyday ways. Poppy had a sense of class and style. His furniture was older, upholstered and carved wood, and little cut glass ornaments decorated the mantle over his fireplace. His couch always had some pretty oriental fabric thrown over it, and he dressed himself in a shirt and tie and leather shoes almost every day.

I was never discouraged from comic books, cartoons, colouring, drawing, or from daydreaming. Philosophy was revealed in bite-sized chunks, through funny sayings from Popeye or Groucho Marx. Punny poems by J. Ogden Nash would be recited at the kitchen table, or cute ditties from the forties and fifties would be re-sung, getting lodged in my young head. Humour and creativity seemed to be a part of my Mother’s home language when we all lived with her father Ernest In Victoria. Her happiness at being with him was probably a major factor in her overall happiness in life. Life was treated as something to be enjoyed whenever possible. Seeing my Mother laughing, singing, and acting lively were the best moments that I can think of. Her happiness was rare and infectious.

As I got older, Mum was often quiet, struggling with bouts of depression and saying very little. Lateron, reflecting on this would encourage me to wonder about mental illness and psychology, and to speculate if my Mum could be cured or not.

I can’t say that she ever really taught me anything directly because she rarely ever even spoke to me or my sister. Instead, I ended up learning about her by listening to the stories my Dad told about her, and by watching her behaviour and listening to her rare words – I watched the performance that Angela gave as my Mother, and I tried to draw out some moments I could enjoy, and some lessons I might use.

I learned to recognize qualities in her that I saw in myself later: we had the same green eyes, we loved music, art, and the movies. Mum had acted and sang in musical theatre with the Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and later in my life, I realized that I love live theatre and music too. I took to many of the jazz and pop musicians whom Dad had told me that she’d loved in her youth, in particular, Oscar Peterson. We still have a few vinyl LPs that belonged to Mum. I can try to hear her voice by listening to the music that she liked.

The Hybridized Man

I realized by 19 or 20 that I was really a split human – a hybrid of him and her, mother and father, and their individual qualities. I had his lines on my forehead and her colour in my eyes. I knew I was artistic and creative, nervous, and introspective. I was also technical, curious, and resourceful. I had a bit of an ego like him, but could be gentle and insecure like her. If I was pushed, I could generate his power and authority in my voice, all while feeling her nervous butterflies swirling around in my stomach.

Finding computer graphics in art school gave me a perfect middle ground between art and technology. I could express my creative and visual design ideas, while gradually learning about the electronics and mechanics of the devices that made it all possible. The world was going more digital every day, and Stewart Brand of the MIT Media Lab was describing the start of the convergence of the Print, Broadcasting, and Computer media which, a generation later, has utterly changed our society. Back around 1986, it was still at the start of a brave new world.

Gradually after four years of study in drawing, art history, multidisciplinary art, and visual literacy, my grad projects came together as interactive electronic and graphical constructions that explored the relationship between viewer/participator, moments, and actions. It was 1989, in a time when terms like “user interface” were more likely to be heard in the offices of companies like Nintendo, Apple and Microsoft, not in an art school.

The next giant leap for me would be six years later, when the World Wide Web became popularized and started to homogenize and automate online information. By 1995, I was an art director at a small software developer, and riding the line between art and technology every day. The web became a meta-medium that absorbed and presented other media for multisensory experiences that transcended platforms and geographies. Basically, the web changed everything and 25 years later, it still feels to me like the medium to integrate all media.

Paths to Theories About Everything

Artists and multidisciplinary practices showed me the ever-blurring boundary between creative and scientific principles. Spiritually and philosophically, reading about Buddhism has drawn hugely important connections for me between ideas like hope and despair, and between the material and the immaterial worlds. Visualizing the interdependence of all things, and the suffering inherent in being alive has helped me to understand the difference between nihilism and peace of mind. I began to feel that letting go isn’t the same as not caring, and that love can be present and unwavering without having to be insecure or needy. A little peace of mind seems to make everything feel a lot better. Even if I cannot feel the satisfaction of knowing how all the parts fit together, I can at least feel more at ease with my not knowing.

Physicists have pursued a theory of everything for centuries, and whether conceit or truth, they believe they’re closer than ever to finding it. I believe that this is science’s main conceit, in its comparative youth, taking a journey down a path that’s been well-trodden by religion and philosophy for millennia. For me though, science is still the great, evidence-based system to rely on.

Ultimately, we each walk our own path on our own legs, peering out from behind own our coloured lenses, trying to bring our personal version of meaning into focus.

The great philosopher Dr. Seuss once said “Oh, the places you’ll go!” In other words, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

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