Blog 1702: Happiness

I’m trying to figure some things out. Maybe they’re normal for most people, but for me they feel cripplingly overwhelming…

I was raised a devout Coptic Orthodox kid, right up until the age of 16, when I suddenly decided the idea of God was potentially too much of a crutch for me. Could I stand up on my own two feet? If I stripped all that away, who would be left? What kind of a person would I be?

I decided that learning to stand on my own two feet might perhaps be a life skill worth developing – standing on my own morally, intellectually, and most of all in terms of happiness. Without the idea of God (or, more specifically, religion), would I still have a moral code? Would I know how to treat others, how to conduct myself in society? Might I learn what it is that makes me happy, or at least feel good about myself, without deferring to a catch-all concept or institution? My move was not to leave the church decidedly, but more of a Rumspringa-type idea: I take a break for a year, and then reassess. It’s now been more than 20 years, and I’ve never gone back.

After an initial period of feeling adrift, which felt both terrifying and somehow okay and even right, the more urgent moral and intellectual issues seemed to make sense to me relatively quickly. Also, I began to realise, I hadn’t been raised “religious” – I’d been raised by smart, kind, progressive people, in a family with a lot of love. Upon such a foundation, and with my ongoing education and developing intuition, I could feel my way toward enough of a functioning, practical way to move forward in life. Obviously it’s a process that is ongoing, likely for the rest of my life, but at least it began to piece together fast enough to quell my initial panic and allow me, more or less, to get along.

so much of my sense of self (and self-worth) is wrapped up in what I create, how it’s received, and what happens after that

But the happiness part has proven trickier. I was always envious of the more religious people I’d known in the church, whose unquestioning faith seemed to give their life a framework which answered so many questions and allowed them just get on with day-to-day things. Even at my most religious, I was never that guy; I was less of a Sunday mass attendee and more of a bible study kid. Church ritual and hymns put me to sleep (even during my brief, unspectacular stint as a deacon); I needed to engage and be engaged intellectually, to discuss the text. But, of course, when the text in question is… well, in short: there were no easy answers for me there.

Since even before I left the church, my framework became about my art. In the years since, my desire to build a career out of my creativity has become the single guiding principle in my life. From film, to graphics, to writing, to of course music, making stuff has been the priority, the foundation from which I could pursue, or back to which I could trace, every single thing I do, and every single decision I make. I’ve moved from medium to medium, project to project, incarnation to incarnation, trying to find and refine that framework into something solid and lasting enough for me to just get on with day-to-day creativity. This Ray Mann project was intended to be just that – and for more than a decade, it has been that framework, for my art and my life (and I always feel funny about making the distinction between the two, but perhaps that’s another discussion).

Over the last few years however, “Ray Mann” has become less and less of a framework, and more and more of a constriction. And beyond that, I’m no longer sure that music itself offers a framework that fits. I’ve tried to start from basics once again and see what fits me now: does music still make me happy? If yes, does it still need to take up the space and shape in my life that it has until now? If no, how can I reconfigure things? What else do I want in the mix?

… as you might imagine, all this makes writing a new song (for Ray Mann or anyone else) a little difficult.

That said: since I’ve stopped trying to, I’ve found music is pouring out of me. My new sounds don’t really fit in with Ray Mann, at least as I understand him – which is why, outside of my electronic gigs and instagram posts, you’ve heard almost none of it (for now). Yet other parts of my brain are itching too, with new ideas about film & video, visuals, storytelling, aesthetics, collaboration, connection, sex, goodness, identity, time… I guess I figure my chances of finding happiness are increased if I remove any restrictions, any preconceived notions, any frameworks that exclude possibilities. Unfortunately, the flipside of this approach is that it’s also overwhelming and exhausting. I wish things were simple, as simple as they seemed to be for those people of unquestioning faith – but I guess it’s never going to work that way for me.

I wish i could just let my work speak for itself (even though that hasn’t always worked out). I’m writing this because my new art’s not ready. I’m writing this because I’m not ready, and this process is taking way too long. I’m writing this because, as far as anyone who encounters me online is concerned, I’m still about this. I’m writing this here because, for now at least, Ray Mann is still my main outlet – even though my heart has moved on.

I’m creating things, and I want desperately to be realising and releasing them. But I need to be sure of how, and more importantly why. As impatient as I am, I can understand it takes time to figure these things out. I don’t want to rush into anything, to reach for easy answers that won’t fit in the long run. I don’t want, in my haste, to simply paint myself into another corner. What will make me happy? Why is so much of my sense of self (and self-worth) wrapped up in what I create, how it’s received, and what happens after that? Can I stand on my own two feet? What kind of a person, an artist, a project, an identity, will I be next? And how long can I make it last?

Photo by Mina Saleeb.

UPDATE: since posting this, I’ve posted a mini-mix of some of those not-ready-yet sounds I’m working on:

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