by Jackson Arn
The best thing about a painting is that no two people ever paint the same one. They could be sitting in the same garden, staring at the same tree in the same light, poking the same brush in the same pigments, but in the end none of that matters. The two hypothetical tree-paintings are going to turn out different, because the two hypothetical painters are different also.
Because the paintings are different, it stands to reason that one is likely to look better than the other. Not certain, but likely. Granted, if the two painters are five-year-olds lacking fine motor control and knowledge of linear perspective, their trees are bound to be equally bad. And granted, if the two are Leonardo and Picasso, their trees will be equally good—different in style, of course, but alike in goodness. Art is subjective, but like everything else subjectivity has its limits. Most of the time, one person is better at painting.
The person who paints the better tree is not necessarily the more careful painter. One person could sit in the garden all afternoon working on a leaf, wait 20 hours for the planet to roll back around, work on leaf the second, and so on for months until the painting is complete—and completely awful. The other person could show up hungover and underslept, sit for fifteen minutes, stand, and leave behind a better work of art. It’s probably worse the other way around. One person could show up at the crack of dawn, paint with brisk, efficient brushstrokes, and be off in time to fix their kids breakfast, such is their dedication to the twin deities of Art and Family. The second person could arrive weeks later, work for months while their children starve, and paint the better painting, and the only thing the world would care about is that the painting is better. All the advantages person two had, all the time person one was forced to sacrifice—nobody cares. All they care about is who painted the better tree.
Yes, I’m right—it’s much worse that way. And not just because of the starving children.
I am not a painter, but I probably could have been. Until very recently, I was a solar engineer. Science always came easy. I never loved it, never got so much as a squirt of dopamine from biology homework or an A plus on a physics exam. It’s just that I was incapable of not getting A pluses in science classes. That was my curse. My unrequested gift.
I can’t remember much about the things I painted back then, but I remember the joy they brought me. Nothing, not even the events of last year, can take that away. All careers in the arts begin with joy. It’s the acorn from which the oak of greatness grows. Inspiration is also needed, and perspiration, and dedication, and luck. But joy is the acorn.
My other unrequested gift at that age was sacrificing joy in order to do the right thing. On weekends, when I could have been painting, I’d pick up trash or organize fundraisers for solar power or recycling. This was hard, even with my gift. Saturday morning would come and I’d be out in the street with a bag of cans and wrappers and I’d think of the pictures I could be painting and the joy they could be bringing me. I thought about them all the time. My gift wasn’t for forgetting joy—it was for remembering perfectly, swallowing hard, and throwing joy away.
It’s an uncommon gift for anyone but especially for a teenager, and it brought me lots of unwanted attention from teachers and friends’ parents. The parents praised me, the teachers gave me awards, and I accepted their awards and their praise, though I wasn’t motivated by either. Fear—terror, actually—was the more relevant factor. In the ninth grade, I had a chemistry teacher who liked to end the school week with a story about imminent environmental apocalypse. Under two degrees Celsius, she’d say, or we’ll all drown or choke. There’ll be nowhere to flee, unless you’re a billionaire with a bunker-villa. And none of you, she’d say, is going to be that, because your generation has gotten the rawest of raw deals. Slides of the Dust Bowl would follow, or videos of Katrina or the Christmas tsunami. If the words better find a solution never actually came out of her mouth, they were at least strongly implied.
I don’t blame her for what happened. If she hadn’t terrified me, somebody else would have. I was young, I was good at science, and I was good at giving up what make me happiest. Saving the world from environmental apocalypse mattered more than painting—there was no world in which one didn’t matter more than the other. So I decided to stop painting and become a solar engineer.
Most people who become engineers have known what they’ll become since childhood. Because I had no interest in engineering, I had to compensate with pure talent. I had no enthusiasm to fall back on when my mind failed me, so my mind never failed. There were times when it came close, but then I’d remember the Dust Bowl and Katrina and two degrees Celsius, and I’d be fine.
So it went for the next eleven years. Then the country fell into the hands of the wrong people. Not the kind of people who get up early to paint the tree before feeding their children. Not the kind who show up hungover and underslept. Not the kind who show up late and work for months while their children starve. These were people who acted like they had no children and trees were an urban legend.
I still qualified as a wunderkind, but barely. Progress was steady. When the wrong people came to power, though, it became clear to me that steadiness wasn’t sufficient. Things weren’t getting dire. They were dire already, and had been that way for a long time—how else could the wrong people have ascended so effortlessly? So I doubled my efforts.
I don’t blame my ninth-grade chemistry teacher for what happened to me, but I do blame the wrong people. There is no end to the ways in which the wrong people fucked things up.
What the wrong people did in my particular case was, they forced me to discover something within myself that I would never have known about otherwise. They forced me to find a hidden reservoir of courage, creativity, dedication, perspiration, and inspiration far more powerful than talent alone—even my talent. I still found solar engineering boring. But with no interest in the field to sustain me and no progressives in Washington, D.C. to put me at ease, I had to burrow deeper until I found a stronger source of fuel. This fuel is similar to the innate genius which painters sometimes find buried in themselves after many years of study and practice, lifting their work from merely excellent to transcendent, sublime, great.
I’m assuming the last part—I’m not a painter and never will be. What I know for a fact, though, is that once you’ve discovered this stronger source of fuel inside yourself, it can’t be forgotten. As long as there’s a use for the fuel, you can’t keep yourself from burning it. You become addicted. Every other source of nourishment known to humankind seems meager by comparison. You’d pity the people around you for not knowing about it, except that you have no time to waste on pity, because you’re trying to build a photovoltaic cell with no carbon footprint.
So it went for the next sixteen years. I wasn’t a wunderkind anymore. I was too young to be distinguished. I was too old to become a great painter. Not that I cared about any of these—all I cared about was the footprintless photovoltaic cell. And so, when I built one—the first of a whole flock, a flock that could save humanity from itself by reducing the flood of emissions to a dribble—I was very, very happy. I didn’t feel transcendent, or sublime, or great. It was a hot summer night, and the air condition dried my sweat but couldn’t stop me from sweating. Maybe, deep down, I knew.
That night I didn’t tell anybody. In retrospect, telling my ninth-grade chemistry teacher, assuming she was still alive, could have been fun. In fact, I think I did consider tracking her down and telling her. But considering this and rehearsing the conversation in my head proved satisfying enough on its own, and so my ninth-grade chemistry teacher remained uninformed. Instead I walked to the top of the hill overlooking the campus, looked at the campus, walked home, and fell asleep, and when I woke up it was too late. If I’d called her the morning after, she would have accused me of taking credit for other people’s work.
I’m not saying I ruined my chances of eternal fame by not calling my ex-teacher the night I discovered the key to the survival of the human race. That would be inaccurate. A team in Italy had completed their own photovoltaic cell with no carbon footprint nine months before I completed mine. I maintain that my design is more elegant than theirs, but no amount of elegance trumps nine months. They’d been sitting on the research while they made deals for patents, licensing, foreign rights, press, etc., and clearly, they went about the deal-making shrewdly—today the team is about fifteen trillion dollars richer than it was a year ago. Calling or not calling my ex-teacher had no effect on their money. My decision not to call had only one effect: it robbed me of a little extra joy in the hours before I realized that the bulk of my life so far had been wasted.
The Italian team was on every channel that morning, and that afternoon and evening, and every day that followed. One of the scientists—the one who’d go on to be most famous, despite playing a decidedly minor role in the breakthrough, because he spoke the best English—said, “I have always wanted to be a scientist. I have always loved science.”
It’s a funny feeling, knowing that if you’d never been born the world would be exactly the same. Not better, just the same. Many people struggle with this feeling. But usually these people have at least one family member or friend to whom they matter, whereas I’ve spent decades avoiding both in order to concentrate on what really mattered, which, as it turns out, never mattered.
It’s too late to try something new and reach the heights I’d thought I might reach—did reach, technically. The fuel is still inside me, useless. Global warming, and the wrong people, ruined my life, and now all I have is my acorn.